Environment | National

Native Sun News: DOI seeks tribal help in boosting bison herds

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Interior’s “Bison Report: Looking Forward” addresses the pictured National Bison Range where the herd was established with specimens saved by members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Photo by Ken Olson / Facebook

Interior seeks tribal help in ‘beefing up’ buffalo herds
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Interior Department is looking to tribes and tribal organizations to help beef up its efforts to promote bison restoration, it said in a report released July 3.

The document, entitled “Bison Report: Looking Forward," marks the first time the department has compiled a summary of its bison stewardship responsibilities. It is an outcome of Interior’s Bison Conservation Initiative, launched in 2008.

In the context of the initiative’s focus on “shared stewardship of this iconic resource,” the Interior Department acknowledged that “many American Indian tribes have strong cultural ties with the buffalo,” and said in the report that it “proposes innovative collaboration amongst tribes, states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers, agricultural interests and others.”

The report stressed that it "will be crucial to build partnerships amidst larger landscapes suitable for ranging bison, while concurrently generating and maintaining sustainable local and regional economies and communities. Indeed, the most important avenue available to DOI to realize bison restoration is through collaboration," it said.

DOI’s Bison Leadership Team and Working Group worked with the National Park Service Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Office to generate the report. It is intended to provide sound scientific information regarding the department’s bison conservation programs, and it identifies tools available for that purpose.

Providing support and information were employees from field units, regional and area offices, and national programs of the park service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, United States Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Individuals from the American Bison Society, the IUCN North American Bison Species Specialist Group, InterTribal Buffalo Council, individual American Indian tribes, and state wildlife agencies provided informal discussion and feedback.

In addition to outlining opportunities to work with tribes, the report discusses the latest developments in brucellosis quarantine, making Yellowstone National Park’s bison available to tribes for conservation, and bison conservation planning under consideration on DOI lands in Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and South Dakota.

DOI lands currently support 17 bison herds in 12 states, for a total of approximately 10,000 bison over 4.6 million acres, including adjacent lands. DOI’s bison population accounts for one third of all bison managed for conservation in North America. They “are crucial to the long-term preservation of the species,” the report states.

“Over the course of the past century, the American bison was saved from extinction and set upon a path to conservation and recovery,” it notes. “Through the efforts of private individuals and organizations, American Indian tribes, states and the U.S. Government, the species was saved,” it acknowledges.

In the late 19th century, the species population, once estimated at upwards of 40 million, was reduced to about 1,100. The last wild, free-roaming bison herd in the United States was protected at Yellowstone National Park, in DOI’s purview.

Over the course of the 20th century, DOI’s bison management focused on stabilizing the bison population, protecting and promoting its remaining genetic diversity. This goal has been successful, according to the report, citing a “rebounded” Yellowstone bison population that has “regained its place as a key species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

While bison are no longer threatened by extinction, substantial work remains to more fully restore the species to its ecological and cultural role on appropriate landscapes within its historical range, the report says.

“In most cases bison managed on DOI lands play only a limited ecological role on the landscape, save for a few locations such as Yellowstone National Park. Fenced herds, which constitute the majority of DOI bison holdings, face limitations for scaling up towards the long-term conservation of the full array of bison ecological processes,” it says.

The bison herds on DOI lands of the Greater Yellowstone Area continue to suffer from constraints on distribution and abundance due to brucellosis and other management challenges, according to the report.

“To achieve ecological restoration of bison across large landscapes, we cannot rely solely on DOI lands. We look forward towards new approaches to 21st century bison conservation,” the report stated.

Conservation groups welcomed the report. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Bison Program Coordinator Keith Aune called it “a sizeable step forward.”

Aune, who is also the lead spokesperson for the American Bison Society (ABS), and Chair of the IUCN Bison Specialist Group for North America said they “applaud the bison conservation strategy” outlined in the report.

“The proposal to restore and manage bison at scales where they can fulfill their ecological role as a keystone herbivore has positive implications for biodiversity, and in particular, for maintaining the ecosystem health of imperiled U.S. grasslands,” Aune said.

“In the tradition of the ABS more than a century ago, the DOI plan similarly aims to bring people together to achieve universally beneficial outcomes and the restoration of an icon of America’s natural heritage. In so doing, bison will range again on landscapes where they will fill unique ecological and cultural niches once thought gone forever,” he said.

Along with the National Bison Association and Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, WCS is a steering member of the Vote Bison coalition, which seeks to celebrate the historical, cultural, economic and ecological contributions of bison.

The coalition is working with members of Congress to pass legislation that would make bison the National Mammal of the United States and celebrate the first Saturday of each November as National Bison Day.

“DOI is committed to collaboration and consultation with tribes in initial planning, proposal development, and implementation stages of action in the conservation of bison on DOI lands,” its report says.

It outlines the tribes and tribal organizations already in collaboration. In FY2012, BIA provided funding and technical assistance to the Fort Peck Reservation to transfer Yellowstone bison to the tribe and funding to develop a holding pasture. Fort Belknap Indian Reservation received funding to develop a quarantine facility and pasture.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe received funding from BIA through Badlands National Park to develop bison fencing to restore bison on the park’s South Unit. NPS is also working with the tribe to establish a jointly managed Tribal National Park on the South Unit.

In Montana, FWS is working closely with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) on an Annual Funding Agreement that will allow the tribe to administer activities at the National Bison Range (NBR), which is located entirely within the Flathead Reservation. The tribe also has strong cultural ties with the bison herd at NBR, which was established using bison saved by the tribe’s members.

DOI bureaus also work closely with the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), an officially recognized tribal organization which serves to coordinate bison restoration among 59 member tribes in 19 states. The council maintains existing agreements with multiple DOI units to receive and redistribute bison to member tribes.

In 2012, Yellowstone National Park signed an agreement with ITBC to partner on the providing surplus bison to Native American Tribes. The Council will receive and process Yellowstone bison and distribute the animals to its 59 member tribes for nutritional and cultural purposes.

Also in 2012, DOI and its bureaus held multiple tribal consultations focused on assessing interest in receiving brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison and in partnering to develop long-term brucellosis quarantine operations that could be used to establish new conservation and cultural herds.

FWS held meetings with CSKT as well as the Eastern Shoshone Tribe on the Wind River Reservation to discuss issues and opportunities related to bison conservation. NPS and BIA invited all 26 tribes associated with Yellowstone National Park to a joint tribal consultation meeting held via conference call. NPS also gave presentations to the ITBC Board of Directors and the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council.

Several tribes expressed interest in receiving Yellowstone bison, and some also expressed interest in partnering on long-term quarantine operations. The tribal consultations also identified important issues such as the resources needed to install infrastructure and manage bison herds, potential conflicts with treaty bison hunting rights, and whether quarantine and relocation are suitable long-term management tools.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation