The Blackfeet Nation, Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada (Elk Island), the Oakland Zoo and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) announced today that 88 plains bison have been transferred from Elk Island to the reservation of the Blackfeet Nation near Browning, Montana. This historic event cannot be overstated in its significance to the Blackfeet people and all tribes and First Nations in their quest to restore bison to native lands and re-establish ties to this cultural icon.
BROWNING, MT (April 5, 2016) – The Blackfeet Nation, Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada (Elk Island), the Oakland Zoo and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) announced today that 88 plains bison have been transferred from Elk Island to the reservation of the Blackfeet Nation near Browning, Montana. This historic event cannot be overstated in its significance to the Blackfeet people and all tribes and First Nations in their quest to restore bison to native lands and re-establish ties to this cultural icon.
The bison calves transferred are descended from those captured on Blackfeet land in 1873 that became the noted “Pablo-Allard” herd.
“Today marks the long-awaited return of these buffalo to their original homeland,” said Ervin Carlson, Bison Program Director and President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council. “The Elk Island Buffalo originated from Blackfeet territory and their homecoming enhances the restoration of Blackfeet culture. These animals are culturally and spiritually connected to our people and I believe their homecoming will begin a healing of historical trauma to the Blackfeet people. These buffalo will begin the longstanding efforts to restore buffalo to their historical mountain front rangelands.”
“This project has tremendous ecological, economic and cultural impacts to the Blackfeet Nation,” said Keith Aune, WCS Senior Conservationist. “It has been a great model of international cooperation and the melding of people from different cultures. We have been planning for this day for five years and are excited to see them finally come home. There is a lot of work to do yet to grow the herd and eventually place these bison on large landscapes along the mountains in the Blackfeet Reservation.”
Elk Island is a national park in Canada that has made lasting contributions to wildlife conservation for over a century. Biennially, Elk Island evaluates its bison herd to determine the number of animals they can keep without exceeding the capacity of the park. In late 2015, the Blackfeet Nation and WCS began a dialogue with Elk Island managers about repatriating some of their bison to the Blackfeet Reservation. The 88 transferred animals were considered surplus. In February, all the bison were tested according to federal regulatory requirements and found to be free of tuberculosis and brucellosis. Following a further 60-day quarantine, the bison were ready to be sent to their ancestral homeland.
“As a leader in conservation, Parks Canada recognizes the role of Indigenous Peoples in conserving, restoring, and presenting natural and cultural heritage and is honored to play a role in this special initiative,” said Stephen Flemming, Superintendent of Elk Island National Park. “In providing plains bison to the Montana Blackfeet Nation Bison Reserve, we are contributing to the global survival and wellbeing of an iconic and majestic animal.”
The calves were transported to the reservation by truck on April 4.th A stop was made during the six-hour journey for ceremonial blessings given by the tribe. Upon arrival, the bison were unloaded at the 9000-acre Buffalo Calf Winter Camp on the Two Medicine River in Montana. Here, they will be kept for another 30-day quarantine and retested to ensure they are disease-free. This herd will form the source stock for future restoration efforts on larger landscapes along the Rocky Mountains once final land arrangements are completed.
“The Blackfeet People were a buffalo people for thousands of years,“ said Harry Barnes, Chair of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “The buffalo provided everything the people needed in the way of food, clothing, and shelter. It provided for so much of our physical needs that it filled our spiritual needs. It connected us to our animal and plant relatives in a way nothing else could provide. The elders have long believed that until the buffalo returned, the Blackfeet would drift. We have started the return.”
Buffalo to Roam at Oakland Zoo
While all the bison will initially be brought to Blackfeet land, approximately 16-17 females and 3-4 males will be moved to Oakland Zoo this fall as part of the zoo’s ‘California Trail’ expansion. The project, more than doubling the zoo’s size, will consist of 56 acres and exhibit several animal species native to California, including the iconic bison. The newly arrived bison will be allowed to breed naturally, and each year the yearling offspring will be returned to the tribal lands in Montana.
Both the Oakland Zoo and Blackfeet Nation will share in educational programs and support each other’s interest in promoting bison conservation and culture preservation. This mutual relationship will include youth exchange for education, fundraising for projects, and promotion of eco-tourism programs.
President and CEO of the Oakland Zoo Dr. Joel Parrott said, “We are excited to be part of the Iinnii Initiative, to bring bison back to historic tribal lands and to provide the opportunity for buffalo to be free-ranging wildlife. This is a great opportunity for the Oakland Zoo to support conservation in the field, provide education programs about bison to our youth, and to expose the people of Northern California to the Blackfeet Nation effort to return buffalo to Blackfeet land.”
Zoos have played a key role in bison conservation; WCS’s Bronx Zoo was pivotal in restoring bison to the Great Plains more than 100 years ago.
The bison continues to sustain and provide cultural value to Native Americans and Indian tribes. More than 60 tribes are working to restore bison to over 1,000,000 acres of Indian lands in South Dakota, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Montana, and other states. Today, bison remain integrally linked with the spiritual lives of Native Americans through cultural practices, social ceremonies and religious rituals.
Leroy Littlebear said, “Two decades ago… a decade ago, who would have thought that the Buffalo would be coming back to its rightful home? Our Elders told us that its numbers may be few but the spirit of the Buffalo never left Blackfoot Territory. That spirit continues to manifest itself in our songs, stories, and ceremonies, so much so that a treaty between First Nations on both sides of the Canada – USA border was signed on September 23, 2014 called “The Buffalo Treaty: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal, and Restoration.” The Iinnii Initiative, a major proponent behind the Treaty, is realizing its dream unfold through this transfer of buffalo from Elk Island National Park to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. It is a good day for the Buffalo; it is a good day for us, and it is a good day for Blackfoot Territory.”
Beginning in May 2010, WCS invited members of the Blackfeet Confederacy to a series of transboundary dialogues among elders and tribal members—resulting in the Iinnii Initiative vision. The vision is to ecologically restore bison (or “Iinnii” in the language of the Blackfeet) to key lands adjacent to Glacier and Waterton National Parks in Montana and Alberta.
* Note to Reporters: For information on bison and the Pablo-Allard herd, please see below.
About the American bison
The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, once roamed the continent and helped sustain plains and prairie ecosystems as a keystone species through grazing, fertilization, trampling, wallowing, and other activities. Bison shaped the vegetation and landscape as they fed on and dispersed the seeds of grasses, sedges, and forbs. Several plains bird species adapted to or co-evolved with grasses and other vegetation that had been, for millennia, grazed on by millions of free-ranging bison.
Bison have played an important role in America’s history, culture and economy. Before being nearly driven to extinction by westward expansion, between 30—50 million bison roamed across most of North America. In 1907, the American Bison Society ( with President Theodore Roosevelt as a member) began an effort to save the bison by shipping 15 animals by train from the WCS Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Many Native American tribes revere bison as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage and maintain private bison herds on tribal lands throughout the West. Bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds, providing recreation opportunities for wildlife viewers in zoos, refuges and parks and sustaining the multimillion dollar bison ranching and production business.
The Pablo Allard Herd
The origins of this herd date back to 1873 when Samuel Walking Coyote of the Pend d’Oreille tribe and three Blackfeet companions captured between four and seven calves orphaned during a hunt on Blackfeet land. Instinctively, with their mothers killed, the calves shadowed the hunter’s horses for security, making them easy to capture.
By 1884, Walking Coyote’s herd grew to 13 bison. Ten of these were sold to Michel Pablo and Charles Allard and formed the Pablo-Allard herd on the Flathead Reservation. This herd eventually became the largest in the United States, numbering 300 head, and played a key role in the preservation of bison by restocking and supplementing many public conservation herds, including those at Yellowstone National Park and the National Bison Range herd in Montana. When the U.S. Government initiated plans to open the Flathead Reservation to homesteaders in1906, Pablo sought a large grant for grazing land to graze his herd but was denied. He eventually sold his herd to the government of Canada. The animals were shipped to Elk Island National Park by train with the last shipment sent out in June of 1912.
Elk Island National Park Initially created as a wildlife sanctuary for elk in 1906, Elk Island became a national park in 1913, the sixth in Canada’s system. The park’s purpose is to protect a representative portion of the Southern Boreal Plains and Plateaux Natural Region and to enable present and future generations to appreciate and experience its outstanding and representative characteristics. The park is Canada’s only fully fenced national park; in addition to elk, it protects herds of both plains and wood bison and has made lasting contributions to wildlife conservation through its ability to provide surplus animals to conservation initiatives throughout North America. Located near the growing urban centre of Edmonton, the park offers increasing numbers of visitors the opportunity to experience nature and enjoy wildlife viewing, including moose, deer, beaver, and over 250 species of birds.
Oakland Zoo The Bay Area’s award-winning Oakland Zoo is home to more than 660 native and exotic animals. The Zoo offers many educational programs and kid’s activities perfect for science field trips, family day trips and exciting birthday parties. Oakland Zoo is dedicated to the humane treatment of animals and wildlife conservation onsite and worldwide; with 25¢ from each ticket donated to support conservation partners and programs around the world. The California Trail, a transformational project that more than doubles our size, opens in 2018, and will further our commitment to animal care, education, and conservation with a focus on this state’s remarkable native wildlife. Nestled in the Oakland Hills, in 500-acre Knowland Park, the Zoo is located at 9777 Golf Links Road, off Highway 580. The East Bay Zoological Society (Oakland Zoo) is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization supported in part by members, contributions, the City of Oakland and the East Bay Regional Parks.
The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council is a federally chartered Tribal organization dedicated to the restoration of buffalo to Tribal lands in manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices. ITBC has been working on this mission since 1992. Visit: http://www.itbcbuffalo.com
The WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is a US nonprofit, tax-exempt, private organization established in 1895 that saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. With long-term commitments in dozens of landscapes, presence in more than 60 nations, and experience helping to establish over 150 protected areas across the globe, WCS has amassed the biological knowledge, cultural understanding and partnerships to ensure that vibrant, wild places and wildlife thrive alongside local communities. WCS was the first conservation organization with a dedicated team of wildlife veterinarians and other health professionals deployed around the world. The WCS Wildlife Health & Health Policy Program focuses on problem-solving at the wildlife / domestic animal / human health and livelihoods interface, as underpinned by a foundation of environmental stewardship. Visit: newsroom.wcs.org Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.