US is focusing bison recovery on expanding tribal herds

The Secretary of the Interior announced that $25 million will be spent on bison protection.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bison are herded north as horseback riders take part in the 33rd Annual Bison Roundup on Saturday, October 26, 2019, at Antelope Island, a state park near Syracuse in Davis County, participate.

Denver • U.S. officials will work to restore larger herds of bison to Native American lands, according to an order issued Friday by Home Secretary Deb Haaland, which urged the government to use Native American knowledge to conserve the burly animals that are an icon of the… American West are.

Haaland also announced federal spending of $25 million on bison conservation. Money from last year’s climate law will build new herds, move more bison from federal to tribal areas and forge new bison management agreements with tribes, officials said.

American bison, also known as buffalo, recovered from near extinction due to commercial hunting in the 19th century. But they remain gone from most of the grasslands they once inhabited, and many tribes have struggled to reestablish their deep historical ties to the animals.

Up to 60 million bison once roamed North America, moving in vast herds that were central to the culture and survival of numerous Native American groups.

They were pushed to the brink of extinction more than a century ago when hunters, US troops and tourists shot them by the thousands to feed a growing commercial market that used bison parts in machinery, fertilizer and clothing. By 1889 only a few hundred bison were left.

Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, is the first Native American to serve as U.S. Cabinet Secretary. She has championed tribal causes on issues ranging from wildlife conservation to energy development, and has shed a spotlight on past mistreatment of Native Americans through a series of listening sessions on systemic abuses at government-run boarding schools.

She told The Associated Press in an interview last year that the decimation of bison by European settlers eliminated the main food source for many tribes and paved the way for their lands to be taken away.

The return of bison in some locations is considered a conservation success. But Haaland said they remain “functionally extinct” and more work is needed to bring the animals back to tribal areas and restore the grasslands they depend on.

“This holistic effort will ensure that this powerful sacred animal is reconnected with its natural habitat and the original stewards who know best how to care for it,” Haaland said when announcing her appointment Friday during a World Animal Day event of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC

“When we think of indigenous communities, we must acknowledge that they have spent generations spanning many centuries observing the seasons, tracking wildlife migration patterns, and fully understanding our role in the delicate balance of this earth,” she added.

Across the US, from New York to Oklahoma to Alaska, 82 tribes now have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds. In recent years the numbers have grown, along with the desire of Native Americans to take back responsibility for the animals.

Many of the tribes’ bison came from U.S. authorities, which over the past two decades have transferred thousands of the animals into thin government-controlled herds to keep them from outgrowing the country. The transfers were often done in conjunction with the South Dakota-based InterTribal Buffalo Council. The group’s director, Troy Heinert, said Haaland’s appointment was a recognition of the work the tribes have already done.

“The buffalo has had a connection with the native peoples for as long as we have had with them,” said Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. “You are not just a number or a commodity; this puts a relative back in his rightful place.”

Previous administrations have proposed or advanced bison conservation plans — including under former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump — and tribes have long been part of that process.

Haaland’s order puts the interests of Native Americans at the heart of the Interior Department’s bison program. It also adds a yet-to-be-named tribal leader to a group exploring the establishment of new herds on both tribal and federal lands.

Bison reintroduction could put the Biden administration at odds with Montana state officials. Republican lawmakers have resisted returning the animals to federal states and have opposed some previous transfers of bison to tribes.

State lawmakers voted Thursday to introduce a resolution opposing the reintroduction of bison to the million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northern Montana — an idea floated by the Biden administration and by the Native Americans supported.

“Bison was part of the culture 200, 300 years ago. We won’t go back to that,” said Mike Lang, a Montana state senator who supported the resolution. Lang said he wasn’t opposed to bison on tribal lands, but added that as population numbers increase, they could pose problems for ranchers and a threat to public safety.

About half of the $25 million announced Friday will go to the National Park Service. The remainder is shared between the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

It includes about $1 million to establish a training program that trains tribes in bison management, including in national parks and national wildlife refuges, officials said.

The Department of the Interior currently oversees 11,000 bison in herds on public lands in 12 states. US is focusing bison recovery on expanding tribal herds

Justin Scaccy

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