Fort Peck Tribes Carry Out Largest Ever Inter-Tribal Buffalo Transfer After three years of isolation and disease testing, the bulls are headed from Montana to tribes in Kansas, Wisconsin and Alaska. Buffalo were once the center of tribal economies and spiritual life.

Fort Peck Tribes Carry Out Largest Ever Inter-Tribal Buffalo Transfer

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/904893046/905927019" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hundreds of American bison, sometimes known as buffalo, are slaughtered outside Yellowstone National Park every year as a population control measure. As Wyoming Public Radio's Savannah Maher reports, some Native American tribes have now intervened and are rescuing the animals.

SAVANNAH MAHER, BYLINE: It's a bright August morning in northeast Montana. Robbie Magnan rose before dawn to coax these 40 buffalo into a corral. And if you think you're tired of staying home, these bulls have endured three years of isolation and disease testing.

ROBBIE MAGNAN: Most of their life, they've been in some type of quarantine.

MAHER: Magnan runs the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes' buffalo quarantine program. He says ranchers fear that buffalo could spread an illness called brucellosis to their cattle. That's what makes buffalo restoration so difficult.

MAGNAN: But today is a good day because they'll go to a home where they'll never have to be tested again, and they have the rest of their life to enjoy being a buffalo.

MAHER: Those new homes are with 16 other tribes as far from here as Kansas, Wisconsin and Alaska. A livestock trailer rolls up to the pasture to start a few of them on their journey.

MAGNAN: Come on. I need all you buffalo handlers to your stations.

MAHER: Convincing the buffalo to get on is not easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUFFALO ROUNDUP)

MAHER: Magnan says all this hard work is worth it to restore an animal that was once the center of life for tribes across the Plains and the Mountain West.

MAGNAN: They were, I call them now, the one-stop Kmart or Walmart. They've given everything you needed.

MAHER: Food, clothing, shelter - buffalo were the center of tribal economies and spiritual life in the region. But in the late 19th century, white settlers hunted buffalo to the brink of extinction.

ERVIN CARLSON: They thought if they killed, you know, all of the buffalo that they also would get rid of the Indians, you know?

MAHER: That's Ervin Carlson, president of the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

CARLSON: But the buffalo are still here. And consequently, the tribes are still here.

MAHER: Today, the InterTribal Buffalo Council works to protect the animals from a new threat - culling at Yellowstone National Park. That's where these 40 bulls started their lives. Carlson says they came here to Fort Peck instead of being slaughtered.

CARLSON: So today, you know, is real gratifying just to be able to get some animals out of there and then out to tribes alive.

MAHER: And those tribes will use the buffalo to build their own herds. That's a point of pride for Jonny BearCub Stiffarm. She's one of a dozen or so Fort Peck tribal members gathered at the pasture today to see the buffalo off.

JONNY BEARCUB STIFFARM: We have a drum group out here, and they'll sing the prayer songs to send the buffalo safely to their new homes, that they travel safe and receive blessings...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

BEARCUB STIFFARM: ...And say goodbye to them for us. And we'll send them on their way.

MAHER: Growing up, she never imagined that buffalo could live on tribal land.

BEARCUB STIFFARM: We only read about buffalo in a book. We only saw buffalo at a zoo or at some wildlife preserve that was non-Indian.

MAHER: But for the Fort Peck community and the 16 other tribes that will receive these buffalo as gifts, that will no longer be the case.

BEARCUB STIFFARM: You'll notice here at this gathering that there's some real little children here. Buffalo will always have been a part of their lives. And so for a lot of us older generation, to be able to see that circle become complete has really been meaningful.

MAHER: Now that they're in charge of quarantining the animals, the Fort Peck tribes say this is the first of many intertribal buffalo transfers.

For NPR News, I'm Savannah Maher on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in non-English language).

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.