Bison, our national mammal, have returned to more of their homeland. On November 3, 2016, 10 bison were released on the 2.2-million-acre Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The last wild buffalo to be seen there was in 1885, 131 years ago.
The release project, 30 years in the works, was primarily coordinated by the reservation’s Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes and the National Wildlife Federation.
For any American, but especially for the people on the Wind River Reservation—the seventh largest in the country—bison being restored to their rightful place is a moving event. As you watch the video below, titled Boy-zshan Bi-den (“buffalo return” in the Shoshone language), you’ll hear Tom Dougherty, former president of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation and former senior advisor to the president of the National Wildlife Federation, say that “there is a magical relationship between tribal people and buffalo. They have to have a place on the landscape.”
This isn’t the first of the Wind River tribes’ conservation successes. In 1938, they designated the nation’s first wilderness area. That’s more than two-and-a-half decades before passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. In the early 1980s, the tribes enacted hunting regulations that surprisingly allowed their ungulate populations to grow. Six of the seven types of ungulates found in the area before the arrival of Lewis and Clark have been brought back: bighorn sheep, elk, moose, whitetail and mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. Now, buffalo are on their way to joining the ranks of the restored.
Predators, too, have been given their due on the reservation: in the 1990s and 2000s, the tribes passed grizzly bear and wolf management plans that honor their cultures’ respectful relationship with carnivorous species.
Two centuries ago, more than 30 million buffalo streamed across North America. As you watch the video below, produced by the National Wildlife Federation with the help of filmmaker Colin Ruggiero, you’ll hear from Jason Baldes, buffalo representative for the Eastern Shoshone and executive director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center. He states, “When I had a chance to visit East Africa when I was 18, it was very significant because we witnessed the wildebeest migration, which is today the largest ungulate migration in the world at 1.5 million. But more significant is that that is just 5 percent of what the buffalo was here, on this continent. We had our own Serengeti, and we annihilated it as a means to annihilate the native people who were here. Buffalo in Yellowstone and the national parks are considered an icon. [Although the] buffalo was recognized as our national mammal, we don’t see them on the landscape. That’s unfortunate; that they’re not considered wildlife—they’re considered livestock or a nuisance when they’re outside those protected areas.”
We will probably never again see the rivers of bison that once flowed across the American West. But it’s good to know that at least 10 more of them have been given a chance to reclaim just a fraction of their homeland.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,