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A modern-day buffalo battle: Struggle over bison restoration on the Great Plains

Robbie Magnan, seen here in Fort Peck, Mt., on April 23, 2015, looks after one of the only genetically pure bison herds on aboriginal land, and he's among a vast network of people working for a buffalo renaissance.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Alexander Panetta
June 15, 2015 - 7:00 AM

FORT PECK INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. - Squinting into his binoculars, Robbie Magnan can see past the rolling, endless grasses of the Great Plains, and beyond the boundaries of his Native American reservation.

He can see through time.

There are only two genetically pure bison herds on aboriginal lands in America — and Magnan supervises one of them. On this day, the herd's expanding. It's calving season, and he's got his eye on the full-bellied female in the distance, hoping she'll deliver a small victory against the tide of history.

The Sioux-Assiniboine man grew up hearing about the mystical mammals of these plains — but didn't see one until he was 10, at a zoo in Denver.

If he gets his way, his descendants will grow up with them.

A sprawling network is attempting to restore bison in as many places in the U.S. and Canada as possible. It includes conservationists, private donors, aboriginal communities and governments. In Canada, small herds are already destined for the Grasslands and Banff national parks.

Magnan sees the animal's fate as intertwined with his people.

It's not just that they ate it, dressed in it, lived in its hide, and prayed for it. Their shared history also includes being misnamed by Europeans (the people mistaken for "Indians," the bison for African "buffalo"); pushed west by settlers; nearly wiped out, and relegated to isolated areas.

Magnan even notes their common matriarchal societies: females raised the young, males broke into separate groups and learned to fight.

"They're part of us," said Magnan, 60, director of fish and wildlife on the Fort Peck reservation.

"Whatever happened to the Native American, happened to the buffalo."

What's happening now, he hopes, is a renaissance.

The bison population has been ticking upward. Once nearly extinct, down to just hundreds in the late 1800s, there are now more than 20,000 genetically pure bison and 500,000 bison-cattle — mixed-breed commercial herds — in Canada and the U.S.

Fort Peck got involved gradually.

It introduced a small commercial mixed-breed herd a decade ago, for eating and selling hunting permits for up to $5,000.

After a generations-long absence, genetically pure bison have now been restored here. They came from Yellowstone park — descendants of the few survivors who'd found refuge there during the mass extermination. Having multiplied, the herd was being culled each year.

They arrived in two instalments, in 2012 and 2014. After this calving season, there will be more than 260 roaming the fence-lined, 100-square-kilometre property.

The ultimate goal is multi-faceted: attract tourists, eventually allow hunts, and provide a lean substitute for beef in a community where diabetes rates are six times the national average.

Some neighbours are unhappy.

Many are descendants of the homesteaders who supplanted bison with cattle when they arrived here a century ago. Montana lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at limiting bison transfers. It was just vetoed, however, by the Democratic governor.

"It's a fight over grass. Same fight as the 1800s," Magnan said.

"It's cattle versus buffalo."

Magnan says the tribe gets along with most ranchers. But there's a plan for the hostile ones: Buy land around them, and cut off their property access.

Tom DePuydt, a third-generation Montana rancher, is fine with the natives having bison.

"I think they should go for it," he said. "As long as they have a way of managing, and controlling the bison, I'm not opposed to it."

What scares DePuydt is the idea of free-roaming bison on public lands — an objective of conservationists and some policy-makers.

He fears they will destroy crops, possibly spread disease, and eat the grass on federal land where cattle ranchers have paid fees and bought grazing permits.

DePuydt wonders what his kids will inherit.

"We have preserved this landscape," he said. "Our fathers and grandfathers have cared for it. We have left it in very good shape. And now they want to take it away."

One leader in the bison-restoration movement said every conservation effort encounters this fear.

The first buffalo-conservation bill to pass the U.S. Congress, in 1874, was vetoed by president Ulysses Grant over similar concern about farming.

Having been raised in a farming family, Keith Aune understands the historic tension. But the veteran conservationist said the region could prosper if farming co-existed with bison-related tourism.

"The idea that it's either-or is a false dilemma," Aune said.

"You can have both."

Aune helped relaunch the American Bison Society, a group originally co-founded in 1905 by then-president Theodore Roosevelt.

Aune calls that era the First Bison Recovery. Now it's the Second Recovery, thanks to a confluence of factors, including Yellowstone looking to get rid of some bison.

Out on the reservation, Magnan calls himself a realist. He knows the plains won't be what they once were. He just wants young people to experience their heritage.

"You bring back your buffalo, you bring back your culture, your traditions," he said.

"You bring all of them back, you become one again. And you can start prospering, as your ancestors did."

He hands over the binoculars.

In the distance, where there was one bison, there are now two. Born at the base of a hill, the little one takes its first steps and immediately conquers a steep slope.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2015
The Canadian Press

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