In the remote northeast corner of Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Robert Magnan has built a fence.
Stretching nearly 42 kilometers across more than 2,000 hectares of Montana’s snow swept plains, it’s taken two years and $200,000 raised by the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck to complete the fence.
Now Magnan waits for the last piece of the plan.
Hundreds of kilometers south of the Fort Peck reservation, where Montana and Wyoming meet in Yellowstone National Park, we find what Magnan is waiting for. Staggeringly large, burly, and grandbison.
An icon of the country’s western wild land. Magnan, who heads up the tribes’ Fish and Game Department, hopes that the land enclosed by the fence will one day provide a new home to just a few of the park’s iconic bison herd.
Yellowstone’s roughly 3,900 bison, also known as buffalo, are the last herd directly descended from the tens of millions of American wild bison that once thundered across the Great Plains.
But the road from Yellowstone to the far reaches of Fort Peck’s pasture is so far closed.
Winter in the Rockies is not for the faint of heart. Even for these bison, who have survived the harsh winds and sub-zero climate for seemingly time immemorial, it is an annual rite of survival that now brings tests beyond temperature.
During especially harsh wintersjust like this season bison often leave the park in search of food.
Once they reach the greener grass, they face a new challengenot winter, but people.
The foraging bison are rounded up into corrals by state livestock authorities riding horse or helicopter and tested for brucellosis. The disease, which can be passed between species, causes livestock to abort their younga condition that cattle ranchers are understandably not eager to encounter in their herds.
The round-up is a means of preventing the disease from spreading to cattle, but more often than not, it leads to the slaughter of bison. In the winter of 2008, nearly 1,600 Yellowstone bison were sent to slaughter.
Conservationists worry that another harsh winter combined with disease could devastate an already fragile gene pool.
“It’s indefensible that we would be slaughtering any animals at this point when there are so many outlets for these Yellowstone bison,” says Jeff Welsh of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group based in Bozeman, Montana. “Tribal councils want to have bison back on their landsit’s a spiritual animal to them. There are lots of open spaces on public lands across Montana where people would like to see bison restored once again.”
Not everyone sees relocating the massive animals as the solution. Montana state senator John Brenden is one of many politicians who oppose relocating the park’s bison onto public land, as does the cattle industry.
“Why would you want to have them roam free in today’s society?” asks Brenden, walking up the steps of the state capitol building in Helena. “If they want to spread those buffalo out in the rest of Montana, you’re just making the problem much bigger.”
Despite the opposition, conservationists and tribes are hoping to avoid the annual winter battle of the bison by relocating just a few hundred of the disease-free animals to public land in Montana where they once roamed.
This is where Robert Magnan waits with a ready fence.
Tribes and bison
Magnan hopes to create a cultural herd for the tribe with just 50 of Yellowstone’s bison.
The tribe has a commercial herd of domestic bison, but like the majority of American buffalo, their genes are mixed with cattle. Yellowstone’s bison are the only wild and genetically pure herd in the country.
His plan is to grow the cultural herd to no more than 150 bison and then manage its numbers through hunts. That meat would be given to the tribe’s elderly and diabetic population, as well as the reservation schools.
Beyond the practical and health reasons, managing the herd would restore a tradition taken away from their ancestors over a century ago.
Native American tribes that inhabited the vast plains of the American continent relied upon the bison to thrivebison provided shelter and warmth through their skin and fur; meat and sustenance through their flesh; and utensils and weapons through their bones.
Nothing was wasted, making the buffalo crucial to survival and therefore viewed with gratitude.
As settlers moved further West and the demand for their skin and meat increased, more bison were killed. During the last battles between tribes and the US army, the government pursued a policy of bison extermination to weaken the Plains tribes, who moved as the buffalo migrated.
By the end of the 19th century, there were only around two dozen bison left in the region in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley.
It is from that small population that survived in Yellowstone a century ago that the country’s largest wild and genetically pure bison herd now existsmaking their survival and restoration to the plains paramount to the tribes.
“It would definitely bring back cultural significance to our people, which has been driven away from us for years,” says Magnan, who has both Assiniboine and Sioux blood. “And help us get more connected to our ancestors.”
A closed road
In the dead of winter, snow has covered much of the fence, which normally towers six feet tall. In fact, this part of the state is almost an arctic tundra in the winter, with snow seamlessly blending into the sky’s purple, blue and orange hues.
You can drive for miles before encountering another soul, and strain your eyes as you mightyou’ll only see a sea of snowy plains rolling in the distance. It makes it hard to imagine bison could pose a problem here.
There are no documented cases of wild bison spreading brucellosis to cattle, and only bison that have been under monitored quarantine for years are considered for the relocation project.
But Montana’s cattle ranchers and politicians don’t want to take any chances. They claim wild bison cannot be contained by a fence and shouldn’t be relocated to public or tribal land.
“Have you ever tried to stop a buffalo from going through a fence?” senator Brenden asks. “I would say that the only way you can fence a buffalo in is to create another Berlin Wall.”
“The tribe certainly has some claim from their treaty and status,” Brenden acknowledges, “but they have to understand that they have a responsibility to us just as much as we have a responsibility to them.”
Brenden, who lives north of the Fort Peck reservation, says the solution is not to relocate Yellowstone bison, but rather to put a cap on the number in the park that’s much lower than the current population and then manage that number by regular culling.
Cattle ranchers and their advocates also argue that bison relocation poses a threat to cattle grazing.
“What we are doing is letting a few special interests, one industry, dictate what happens to these animals,” Welsch contends. “We have an opportunity here to help right two of the greatest cultural wrongs in our historyand that’s the cultural genocide of the Native American and the wanton slaughter of the bison. By restoring just a few hundred to these tribal lands across Montana, we can restore a little bit of something we have lost in our history.”
Back at Fort Peck, Robert walks along the fence, inspecting posts, unfazed by the biting winds of the Montana winter, waiting to open the gate to the past, so the rumble of thunder can be heard across the plains once again.