CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Ten more buffalo are set to join a nascent herd on the starkly beautiful landscape of a Wyoming American Indian reservation, a project significant to tribal members who went over a century without living with the animals dear to their culture.
The buffalo to be released Saturday by the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will join 10 released last fall on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
A calf was born to the first group in May. The buffalo known formally as American bison roam a fenced-in enclosure covering half a square mile at the foot of the snowcapped Wind River Range.
The new herd promotes healing from a history of atrocities against the tribe, said Eastern Shoshone buffalo representative Jason Baldes.
"We've had to go through several eras of history that worked to undermine our governments, our people, our language, our culture. This is a way to restore some integrity and dignity to ourselves, by restoring this relationship to buffalo," Baldes said Thursday.
Tribal officials would eventually like to see the herd number 1,000 or more. They've got enough room: The reservation sprawls across more than 3,400 square miles, roughly the size of nearby Yellowstone National Park.
Much of the reservation once did support buffalo, before the U.S. government encouraged the extermination of millions of buffalo across the Great Plains and West in the 1800s.
Today, hundreds of thousands of buffalo have returned to North America but the vast majority are ranch animals with intermingled cattle genes, pointed out Pat Hnilicka, project leader at the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Lander.
"There's not that many bison that would be considered genetically pure," Hnilicka said. "There's a real interest in getting additional conservation herds spread across the landscape."
The new Wind River buffalo are young, 3 years old or less, and almost completely free of cattle genes. They come from the National Bison Range in Montana, where the Fish and Wildlife Service maintains between 350-500 buffalo on a wild landscape.
Buffalo also inhabit Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park but maintaining separate herds of genetically pure animals helps ensure the species' long-term success, Hnilicka said.
Elsewhere in the West, including Montana, ranchers worry wild buffalo can transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle. The Wind River buffalo are certified free of brucellosis and it's unlikely they could contract the disease from the area's elk, said Hnilicka.
The National Wildlife Federation's Tribal Partnership Program also has been involved in the Wind River restoration project. The Northern Arapaho Tribe, which shares the reservation with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, aren't involved but have offered encouragement.
A religious ceremony with traditional drumming and song will accompany the buffalo release.
Baldes has taken local schoolchildren to see the buffalo. Someday, he said, he would like to see buffalo meat included on their lunch menus.
"For tribal folks, it's a blessing," he said. "It's a long time coming to have these animals home and to be able to go out there and see them. Knowing that they're here is a big deal."