It was like a scene straight from an epic western: 94 wild Yellowstone bison, their instincts in full throttle despite five years behind government fences, thundering through an open gate and onto a vast plain.
The ground literally trembled as they traversed a juniper and sage draw on Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch southwest of Bozeman, disappearing over a ridge seemingly moments after their initial burst to freedom.
This was a historic moment. Those 94—now up to nearly 150 less than a year and a half after their release in May 2010—were the first bison to leave Yellowstone National Park alive in more than four decades. After years of slaughter, hazing and harassment, wild bison were a symbolic step closer to roaming free on appropriate landscapes across the West.
Today, thanks the diligence of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, we are on the cusp of yet another important leap on the road to restoring wild bison to a fraction of the lands they once roamed by the millions. The state has proposed moving disease-free Yellowstone bison from quarantine pens north of the park to two of wildlife management areas and the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
Though again largely symbolic, the significance of this latest news can’t be overstated.
The translocation of Yellowstone bison to Turner’s ranch and the opening of 75,000 acres this this past spring in the Gardiner Basin certainly were landmark moments, but in each case the animals remained within Greater Yellowstone. This next group will be the first to leave the ecosystem, ultimately showing the world what we already knew—that, contrary to the hue and cry from the cattle industry, bison proven disease-free by years of intensive testing can be moved to other parts of the West without rural economies collapsing.
In a sense, the dispersal of wild bison from Yellowstone is the final step in a rescue effort that began more than a century ago, when a mere 24 remained at what is now the Buffalo Ranch in the park’s Lamar Valley. For the first six centuries they were treated like cattle; it wasn’t until the Organic Act of 1968 that their populations were allowed to expand naturally—albeit within Yellowstone’s boundaries.
Because this first group to leave Greater Yellowstone will still be behind fences on parcels ranging from 800 to 8,000 acres, it is still merely one more interim step en route to truly wild herds outside the park.
The crowning achievement: When wild bison exceeding Yellowstone’s carrying capacity are routinely put on trucks and delivered to the many other suitable large tribal, public and private landscapes across North America.
No more slaughter. No more hazing. No more roadblocks from livestock producers stubbornly defending the indefensible.
No more fears that this genetic treasure trove could be lost forever because vulnerable wild bison are concentrated only in Greater Yellowstone.
When complete, the restoration of wild bison to wide-open spaces will rank as one of the great conservation success stories of our time, alongside the reintroduction of the native gray wolf to the Northern Rockies, the rescue of the bald eagle nationwide, and the grizzly bear’s rebound from near extinction in Greater Yellowstone.
Especially poignant will be the moment when hundreds of those bison are set free on tribal lands.
After all, the wanton slaughter of millions of plains bison was part of a calculated government effort to subdue, suppress and annihilate the American Indian. To the Indian, the bison was a sacred source of food; without it, their spirit was destroyed, their dignity stripped, their submission inevitable.
Many of Montana’s tribes have domestic herds, but not since the mid-1800s have either bison or the Indian roamed unfettered under the big sky.
If all goes as the State of Montana plans, one day soon tribal and other lands will again tremble as if part of an epic western, as an iconic piece of the American West’s cultural fabric is at long last restored to parts of a vanishing frontier.
Jeff Welsch is Director of Communications for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.