INDIAN LAKE — Atop a hill on the wind-scoured prairie of northeastern Montana there is a large pink-hued granite boulder. In the right light, visitors can see that its surface is covered in buffalo tracks etched by ancient people.
The Indian Lake Medicine Rock is the largest known boulder with rock art in northeastern Montana, according to one academic survey.
A Bureau of Land Management plaque nearby said the artwork could be of religious significance, or it may point to good hunting areas or places to cross the Missouri River to the south. Another theory is that the rock art tells a tale that has been lost to time.
Bison on the brain
No matter the interpretation, it’s obvious from the site that bison were central to the prayers and thoughts of the Americans Indians and their ancestors who lived and migrated through this region north of the Missouri River.
The land now is largely devoid of bison, except for a small herd on the nearby American Prairie Foundation’s ranch and two herds totaling about 560 animals on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations miles to the west and east, respectively.
In what could be a sea change, though, officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildwlife and Parks have begun studying the possible reintroduction of wild, free-roaming bison somewhere in the state.
As part of that discussion, the agency has published “Background Information on Issues of Concern for Montana: Plains Bison Ecology, Management, and Conservation,” a 158-page document that contains historical data as well as information on disease and management.
The booklet is also available on FWP’s website.
Based on the document, here’s an overview of bison and the history of their disappearance from this landscape they once dominated.
Largest land mammal
It is estimated that about 30 million bison once roamed the Great Plains from southern Canada to northern Mexico, the majority of them east of the Rocky Mountains. In the span of a human lifetime, the animals were largely eliminated from the landscape; only a few isolated bands remained.
The species that occupied Montana, the plains bison, is the largest land mammal in North America. Its relative, the wood bison, is a bit smaller and lives in western Canada and north into Alaska.
The male plains bison ranges between 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, with the cows averaging 800 to 1,000 pounds. At a full gallop, bison can run 30 to 35 mph and have been known to jump 6 feet high.
The dominant feature of the animal is its large, shaggy head. Supporting the head is a large hump of muscle atop the shoulder blades. Full-grown males can stand 6 feet, 5 inches tall at the top of their humps. Females are about a foot shorter.
The plains bison is believed to have descended from southern Asian bison that migrated across the Bering Land Bridge 300,000 to 129,000 years ago. Although the bison’s ancestors favored the Great Plains, their remains have also been found on the East Coast, from New England south to Florida. There’s also evidence that some bison roamed to the mountaintops, with one skull found at 11,000-foot Two Ocean Pass in Yellowstone National Park.
American Indians and their ancestors were long reliant on bison as a source of protein. A bison bone bed near Ekalaka, in southeastern Montana, dates back 11,000 years. It took thousands of years for natives to perfect weaponry and devise easier ways to kill bison, such as herding them over cliffs and using traps to enable easier slaughtering.
In Montana, there are 320 documented bison kill sites, although many more are believed to exist. The sites have been found in 40 of the state’s 56 counties. The state is believed to have one of the highest concentrations of buffalo jumps in the nation.
Although most of Montana’s bison lived in the central and eastern part of the state, trapper accounts note they roamed as far west as the Missoula and Big Hole valleys.
Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were some of the first Euro-Americans to write about the “immense herds” of bison they
encountered in Montana in 1805 as they traveled up the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. By 1880, the bison had been nearly wiped out.
Beginning of the end
As the wagon trains of 1866 brought miners to Virginia City in pursuit of gold, one traveler noted the beginning of what would lead to the demise of large herds of bison — unregulated slaughter. Perry A. Burgess saw members of the wagon train kill numerous bison that were left to rot.
Realizing the danger, artist George Catlin as early as 1832 had called for the U.S. government to protect bison on a reserve to prevent their extermination. His plea was ignored.
By 1858, Fort Benton on the Missouri River was the shipping point for an estimated 20,000 bison robes to Eastern markets. The slaughter was supported by President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration as a way to force American Indians onto reservations. An 1881 report indicated that an estimated 200,000 hides were shipped out of the triangle formed by the Missouri, Musselshell and Yellowstone rivers. Bison numbers quickly plummeted under an onslaught of hide hunters seeking to cash in. By 1884, fewer than 100 hides were shipped from the Miles City-Glendive area, down from 40,000 the previous year.
In the wake of the bison slaughter came bone collectors who gathered and shipped the skeletons East for use as fertilizer, in animal feed and as a carbon-filtering agent for sugar refining. In 1885, one group near Miles City shipped an estimated 200 tons of bones.
Although the Montana Legislature tried to protect bison by passing bills to restrict hunting beginning in 1872, there was no enforcement arm to see that the laws were carried out. By 1895, it was estimated there were only 800 bison remaining worldwide, with the largest group in the Flathead Valley — the 300 head Pablo-Allard herd. In 1908, 34 of those animals would form the nucleus of the National Bison Range herd at Moiese.
In the genes
From these small bands, bison herds have been rebuilt. As of 2008, it was estimated that there were more than 20,500 plains bison in 62 conservation herds within the United States and Canada, only seven of which possessed no cattle genes from being crossbred. Only 13 of those herds, with an estimated 8,300 bison, were considered free ranging. The majority of bison are in domestic herds — an estimated 400,000 on about 6,400 ranches in the U.S. and Canada. In 2007, Montana had 133 bison farms with 14,500 bison. Such domesticated bison have been selectively bred for certain traits.
Concern over a genetic bottleneck prompted scientists to determine that the minimum viable population — the number of bison required to maintain 90 percent of a herd’s genetic diversity — is 400 head. At last count, only 26 percent of the conservation herds have populations of more than 400.
In Montana, tribal herds are maintained on six reservations containing an estimated 2,300 bison in 2010. The largest herd of about 1,000 animals is on the Crow Reservation.
To augment their herds, the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes are seeking disease-free bison from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that were captured after leaving Yellowstone National Park. Some of the bison are also being considered for relocation onto two state wildlife management areas, the Spotted Dog and Marias. A separate environmental impact statement will be conducted to investigate the possibility of returning bison to other Montana public lands.
Of the 39 rock art sites found in northeastern Montana, the most common carvings are ones representing bison hooves, according to a study made by Mavis and John Greer. Among entire boulders etched to represent a figure, the most common motif is that of a bison.
Were these etchings attempts to encourage bison to return next season, or thanks for a successful hunt? Possibly they were made during vision quests.
Whatever the reason, it is written in stone that bison were once important to northeastern Montana. Will they be so once again?