Some of the few remaining purebred American plains bison will be returning to the land from which they were originally taken in northern Montana over 100 years ago. The last large herd of wild bison, also referred to as buffalo, were captured from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in 1907 and sold to the Canadian government, who then released them into what is now Elk Island National Park. Under this protection, the herd grew in numbers to such an extent that they were distributed through many national parks, and will now finally be roaming their native lands again.
By the end of the 1800s, due to overhunting and the advancing agricultural frontier, the number of wild plains bison remaining in the American grasslands was thought to have been around 600 individuals, down from an astonishing 25 million animals. Of these few remaining survivors clinging on, around 400 were living on land owned by the Blackfeet peoples of northern Montana, which borders Canada to the north. In 1907, in a bid to save the species, two men called Charles Allard and Michel Pablo rounded up the remaining bison that formed the largest surviving wild herd.
After the U.S. government decided not to take on the beasts, they instead sold the herd – which came to be called the Allard-Pablo herd – to Canada for $225 apiece. Shipped by rail to Elk Island National Park, the bison were free of all natural predators and thus flourished. While the Blackfeet peoples continued to own another commercial herd of bison, these were not purebred, having been mixed with cattle. In fact, most of the surviving bison living within America today, especially those in private herds, are actually hybrids.
This isn’t actually the first time that the bison derived from the Pablo-Allard herd have been returned to Montana, as between 2009 and 2012 a number of the animals were reintroduced to the American Prairie Reserve on the Great Plains. But this movement of 89 plains bison to the Blackfeet reservation will see the animals return to the land from which they were originally taken, completing the circle to again wander through ancestral tribal lands.
It is hoped that they will form the nucleus of a herd which will eventually spread out over much of the reserve, and spill over into the nearby Glacier National Park. Eventually, the Blackfeet elders envision the bison to roam an area of more than 10,360 square kilometers (4,000 square miles), returning the animals to their central role not just in the grassland ecosystem, but also within the traditions and culture of the Blackfeet peoples.
Main image: A plains bison decendent from the Allard-Pablo herd in Elk Island National Park. ceasol/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0