HELENA — Although tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy have historically relied on bison for food, shelter and clothing, free-ranging bison have not been part of the sweeping landscape just east of the Northern Rockies in Montana and Canada for more than a century.
Now tribal leaders say they want to bring the animal back.
Blackfoot Confederacy leaders representing the tribe in northwestern Montana and several tribes in Canada told a legislative panel this week that they want to work with them and other partners to make it happen.
Blackfeet Tribe member and Intertribal Buffalo Council President Ervin Carlson told the State-Tribal Relations Committee in Helena that he and others came to start a dialogue about the Innii Initiative and to garner support. Innii means buffalo in the Blackfeet language.
“We’d like to return (bison) back to Indian Country and especially back to the Blackfoot Confederacy, possibly with some roaming between Canada and us on the Rocky Mountain Front,” Carlson said. “There’s such a resistance to them right now. We just want to show you our side. It’s a good side — it’s all good.”
Tribal leaders have been working on the initiative since 2010 with partners including the Wildlife Conservation Society. They said they have studied the educational, economic and cultural components of the idea.
Paulette Fox, a member of the Blood Tribe who works for the government of Alberta, Canada, traveled to Helena for the meeting. Fox said it’s important to understand the initiative came from tribal elders.
“They have given a lot of thought and strategic guidance,” she said. “There’s a lot of integrity around how we use buffalo.”
The U.S. Canadian border separating the Blackfoot Confederacy has had a negative impact, and this initiative would help the tribes reconnect, Fox said.
Although legislators appeared to listen carefully during the meeting, moving bison from Yellowstone National Park to other areas of Montana has been fraught with controversy and lawsuits.
Livestock owners have said they worry about bison competing with cattle for grazing space, knocking down fences and spreading a disease called brucellosis, which is feared by ranchers because it can cause pregnant cows to prematurely abort their young.
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who introduced past legislation that would have prohibited moving bison to other areas in Montana, said Thursday that he hadn’t heard of the Blackfoot initiative. “It’s probably a little early for me to comment when a lot is still in the infant stage,” he said.
But Brenden said he’s generally concerned about bison damaging property and crops and wondered about the legal recourse for non-tribal property owners who experience damage.
Upward of 60 million Plains bison occupied much of North America before overhunting drove them to near extinction in the late 1800s. Restoration of the animals in Montana likely would rely on bison from Yellowstone National Park, which had about 4,600 animals at last count.
In a pilot program, about 60 Yellowstone bison were relocated beginning in 2012 to Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations. The animals underwent a multiyear quarantine to ensure they were disease-free, yet the move was widely condemned by eastern Montana ranchers and some state lawmakers, who sued unsuccessfully to block the move.
The animals on those reservations have thousands of acres on which to roam, but fences keep them from truly roaming free.
Keith Aune, a scientist and bison program coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said this week that the Blackfoot initiative is just moving into the planning stage and that the idea makes sense.
“There’s dozens of places in North America where there are opportunities for bison, and I think there are opportunities in Montana, particularly with the tribes. It just makes sense that we can proceed in some of those lands,” Aune said.