In the 1800s, America’s bison population was hunted nearly to extinction by European settlers, dealing a devastating blow to Native American communities that depended on the animals for their meat and hides. Though some herds survive today, most of them have been interbred with cattle and are no longer truly wild. However, there is one genetically pure line still in existence, sold to the Canadian government in the early 1900s. Now, some of the descendants of those original bison may finally be returning 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.
Related: Native American Tribe Wants Permission to Hunt Bison in Yellowstone Park
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.
Via The Guardian
Images via John Serrao and Rick Willoughby