The shipment of animals from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation follows a 2014 treaty among tribes in the US and Canada that aims to restore bison to areas of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains where millions once roamed.
“For thousands of years the Blackfeet lived among the buffalo here. The buffalo sustained our way of life, provided our food, clothing, shelter,” Blackfeet chairman Harry Barnes said.
“It became part of our spiritual being. We want to return the buffalo.”
The 89 plains bison, also known as buffalo, will form the nucleus of a herd that tribal leaders envisage will soon roam freely across a vast landscape — the Blackfeet reservation, nearby Glacier National Park, and the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness — more than 10,000 km sq combined.
Bison were hunted to near-extinction in the late 1800s as European settlers advanced across the once-open American West.
Most of the animals that survive today are in commercial herds, raised for their meat and typically interbred with cattle. The Blackfeet have a commercial bison herd established in 1972 that numbers more than 400 animals.
The lineage of Elk Island’s bison, which experts say are free of cattle genes, traces back to a small group of animals captured by several American Indians on Blackfeet land south of Canada.
Those bison were later sold to two men, Charles Allard and Michel Pablo, who formed what became known as the Pablo-Allard herd.
By the early 1900s, the Pablo-Allard herd was said to be the largest collection of the animals remaining in the US.
After US officials rejected a sale offer from Pablo, the Canadian government purchased most of the bison.
The animals were then shipped train from Ravalli, Montana, to Elk Island, according to park officials and Western historians.
“They’ve made a big circle, but now they’re coming home,” said Ervin Carlson, a Blackfeet member and president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council.
The relocation comes as the restoration of genetically-pure bison to the West’s grasslands and forests have gained traction.