The prayers and drum song that rang out over the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation Aug. 22 were supposed to have arrived a year ago. So were the bison. Months of legal wrangling prevented both from happening. But the frustration that's built among tribal members gradually morphed into joy last week, says tribal wildlife manager Mark Azure, as 34 bison exited their trailers and loped across the prairie to the sound of the buffalo-calling song.
"We welcomed them home in true Indian fashion—let them know they're welcome, we're glad they're there and that we're going to look after them," Azure says. "It was a good day."
For Azure, that "good day" came after three days of work at Fort Peck, where 61 Yellowstone bison were released last year. Azure traveled to Fort Peck Aug. 19 to help corral the bison and transport them to temporary pens, where they were again tested for brucellosis. He then oversaw the movement to Fort Belknap.
"They held true to being buffalo and being wild," Azure says. "They don't like to be contained, and they made that perfectly clear throughout the whole four days."
Several conservation groups including Defenders of Wildlife have spent the past few years helping both reservations expand their bison ranges and improve fencing for the new herds. Jonathan Proctor, Rockies and Plains director for Defenders, says the move to Fort Belknap is "definitely the beginning of a new chapter, and this is just the beginning." The ultimate goal for those involved in bison conservation, he adds, is to see herds of 1,000 or more ungulates at numerous locations throughout the region.
"We're not talking about bison roaming the entire Great Plains," Proctor says, acknowledging the already historic opposition ranchers have to new bison herds. "We're talking about bison on large landscapes, but those landscapes, when you put it in perspective, are a fraction of the Great Plains."
Bison have finally come to Fort Belknap, but Azure agrees that the end goal is still a long ways off. This fight has never been exclusively about Fort Peck or Fort Belknap, he says, but about a solution to managing bison that guarantees the future of the species.
"We've gotta continue to work," Azure says. "And I would hope that other tribes and other organizations that are watching this see that it can happen."