No story of wildlife decline in North America is more widely known than the demise of the bison. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, bisons were important for the people of the plains and prairies. This majestic animal once ranged much of the continent, from the east to west coasts, and from Canada’s Northwest Territories in the north and Mexico in the south with the center of population in the great western grasslands.
With new arrivals from Europe, they were soon nearly exterminated. Once thought to have existed in populations of several million, the 1800s were a bad time for the buffalo, being continuously hunted down. This also gravely affected the Native American communities that used to depend on the animal population for food.
Even though some bison herds still exist today, most of them were interbred with cattle and are not truly wild. Nevertheless, there is still one genetically pure line in existence, sold to the Canadian government in the early 1900s.
Some of the descendants of the original buffalo families may at last be returning to their original home
The animals currently live in Elk Island National Park in Alberta, where they’ve been for more than a century. Their ancestors were originally captured by Blackfeet tribe member Samuel Walking Coyote just south of Canada, and sold to two Metis men, Charles Allard and Michel Pablo, who formed what was believed at the time to be the largest collection of bison remaining in the US.
Unfortunately, the American government turned over the reservation used to house the herd to white settlers, and the animals had to be sold off. After attempting (and failing) to sell the herd to Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, Pablo sold them to the government of Canada in 1907 and shipped about 400 animals to Elk Island by train for $225 apiece. The park currently maintains a herd of about 450 animals.
Now, 89 of the plains bison will be returning home. There are plans in the works to relocate a portion of the herd to a Blackfeet reservation in Montana as part of a 2014 treaty between Native American tribes in the US and Canada, aiming to help restore bison populations to the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Once returned, the herd will have access to more than 4,000 square miles of land, including Glacier national park and the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness.
While tribal leaders are celebrating the move as a way of preserving their traditional culture and way of life, not everyone is pleased with the agreement. Some ranchers and landowners near the reservations fear the bison could compete with their cattle for grass or spread disease to their herds, a worry Elk Island officials say is unwarranted — unlike the bison herds native to Yellowstone, the Elk Island bison are disease-free. This is not the first time members of the herd have been turned to the US: in 2009-2010, 93 bison were moved to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, and in 2012, another 70 were reintroduced.