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Rebirth on the Great Plains.

In bringing back bison to their tribal lands, Native Americans are also restoring their own cultural health A 13-year-old Winnebago Indian boy--call him Eddy--is winding wire from an electric fence onto a spool, using a big handle for leverage. He is not the most enthusiastic of winders and when he does put out some effort, he causes a tangle. "You're messing it up," says another boy, hauling in the wire by hand to help, "But then, you can't even break into a house right." Eddy got busted for a minor burglary here on the Winnebago Reservation in northeastern Nebraska, and a tribal court sentenced him to perform several weeks of labor on this Winnebago bison refuge. The remainder of the work crew is a mix of court-case kids and boys earning wages in a summer youth job program. Today, the group also includes me, though as the July afternoon swelters toward 95 degrees I'm having second thoughts about the wisdom of volunteering. I am a wildlife biologist. What am I doing at the edge of a cornfield pulling out fence posts and wire with teenage delinquents? As if to remind me, a burly bull bison, or American buffalo as the creature is often called, appears with several smaller companions on a small rise behind us. "That's the biggest, baddest guy in the herd," the boys tell me, edging away toward some trees. The Winnebagos call him Mike Bison, after the notoriously short-tempered boxer Mike Tyson. But the bull proves to be only curious. All the bison are. Removing the old fence will expand the pasture for this herd of 50 animals to some 200 acres. The animals look eager to explore the new, ungrazed section of tallgrass and prairie coneflowers. I'm here exploring, too, traveling cross-country to learn more about some important modern developments in the ancient relationship between Indians and bison. Numbering 50 million or more, Bison bison once thronged across the whole of North America's Great Plains. A slightly larger subspecies known as wood buf- falo inhabited eastern woodlands and portions of Canada's subarctic as well. However, commercial slaughter for meat and hides, which the U.S. military encouraged to destroy the Indians' food supplies and hasten their conquest, left fewer than 1,000 bison in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. Many of those surviving animals were living in captivity. The only free-ranging herd of bison south of Canada was holed up deep within America's first national park, Yellowstone. There, a public furor erupted not long after the park was established in 1872, after word got out that poachers were kill- ing bison. Park officials soon initiated stronger measures to protect the creatures. Today, nearly 150,000 bison are found in the United States, mostly on privately owned lands where many of the animals are being raised for a growing, $500-million-a-year market in buffalo meat and hides. Ironically, the Yellowstone herd is again at the center of controversy, this time because some of the animals roam beyond the park's boundaries during winter in search of food and area ranchers say those creatures threaten the health of their live- stock. A year ago, federal and Montana state authorities killed hundreds of Yellowstone's bison--animals that Indians say they would have welcomed onto their own lands. For many Native Americans, efforts such as the Winnebago Reservation project take on extra meaning these days because they are part of a growing movement to restore bison to tribal lands across the country. Besides improving the animals' future, such projects are designed to help heal and strengthen Indian cultures for which the shaggy herds were long a mainstay. "The bison always took care of us," says Louis LaRose, a former mem- ber of the Winnebago Tribal Council and interim president of the reservation's community college. "Now it is our turn to take care of them. They are a symbol of our strength and unity. As we restore them to health, we restore a healthy culture for ourselves. I see the rebirth of the buffalo and the rebirth of Indian people taking place together." Each day on the job at the Winnebago pasture begins with a prayer, usually led by LaRose, who helped establish this bison herd in 1994. He lowers his eyes toward the rich, loamy earth and intones: "Grandfather [Great Spirit, Creator], we ask you to help these young men understand their role in bringing back the buffalo. Grant that they may see the lessons of the herd--how the buffalo take care of themselves and help each other." As on many reservations, unemployment here is quite high. For most of these young men, the pasture chores--fencing, grubbing out invading weeds and brush, developing watering holes along a streambed--amount to their first job experience. LaRose expects them to demonstrate responsibility and I notice that, for all their wisecracking, the youngsters pressure one another to keep up. Though most would rather go one-on-one with Mike Bison than admit it aloud, they are beginning to take pride in their tasks--and in themselves. "I came last summer as a court case," says one member of the group. "I've been staying out of trouble since, getting good grades in school. This summer, I came back to the bison project just to work." LaRose makes sure the group spends time simply observing the small herd. I hear him pointing out aspects of bison maternal care and other social relationships, hoping his listeners will begin to ponder the value of being part of a larger, functioning society. LaRose also passes along a bit of wildflower identification and other natural history lessons. As he puts it, "I try to get these little 'coyotes' excited about education without scaring the hell out of them." He uses the bison, a few of which will be culled for meat following a ceremony of thanksgiving, to teach awareness of the value of a healthful diet, especially with regard to diabetes. Diabetes is epidemic among Native Americans. The disease strikes them eight to ten times more often than other Americans. Some 35 percent of all U.S. Indian reservation dwellers are afflicted. This is the highest incidence of the disease among any people in the world. Yet before the reser- vation-settlement era, diabetes was virtually unknown among the tribes. The epidemic appears strongly linked to a sedentary existence combined with a diet high in sugars and fats. Given that fact, LaRose may be right when he says diabetes can be fought with jobs and pride, plus a return to more traditional wild foods. Buffalo can provide all three. Despite its relatively small size of about 120 square miles, the Winnebago Reservation has already set aside several small wildlife reserves where deer and game birds prosper. LaRose hopes to one day link those areas together with an expanded bison range. How large might the herd become? "As large as I can get it," he replies. The Win- nebago Nation is one of 45 tribes that have joined the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), an organization founded by Native Americans in 1990 to assist and coordinate efforts to bring bison back to Indian lands. Members' herds already add up to nearly 9,000 head. And with more than 13 million acres under tribal ownership nationwide, the potential is enormous--not only for the bison but for fritillary butterflies, prairie fringed orchids, vanishing swift foxes and other species that rely on the same kinds of habitat. This is what Indians really mean when they speak of the Buffalo Nation: the whole, wonder- fully diverse array of flora and fauna that revolves around grazing, tramp- ling, wallowing, dustbathing and constantly moving herds. A prime example of bison ecosystem restoration is underway on the lands of another ITBC member, the Fort Belknap Reservation of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes in northcentral Montana. Frontiersmen once described a single mass of bison mill- ing from this terrain to a point 150 miles east. They were a portion of the great northern herd, the last to be extinguished. The end came during the 1870s. Less than a decade later, half the Assiniboine people had starved to death. "No man living here today has the wealth we had before the destruction of the buffalo," says Charlie Ereaux, who teaches cultural values at the Fort Belknap Reservation. "They were our food, our house, our tools, our pharmacy, our spiritual dignity. They were our freedom." In 1974, reservation leaders reestablished a small bison herd that has since grown to more than 250 animals. Roaming 10,000 acres, the herd produces nearly 100 calves per year. Fort Belknap is northern plains country--high, wide and windy shortgrass prairie, dominated by blue grama grass and buffalo grass, with snowcapped peaks on the distant horizon. The heart of the current buffalo range is Snake Butte, a prow of dark, volcanic rock where prairie falcons nest and pronghorn seem to soar just as effortlessly across the ground. It is a favorite site for vision quests, in which tribal members seek a spiritual mentor from among the wild creatures. According to traditional Native American beliefs, animals are not lower life forms than humans but rather other "people" with different kinds of powers than ours--equals in the great circle of life. Not far from one edge of the butte, I find most of the bison. In their midst is a pickup truck containing Roberta Johnson, who is leaning out the window with binoculars and taking notes on the animals' behavior. Over a background of grunts, rumbling growls and the thud of heavy hooves, I hear her say, "The herd is heading into the wind, probably to keep the bugs off. As usual, the leader is one of the cows. I notice more of the bulls sniffing around the females lately. You can tell that the mating season isn't far off." Johnson is one of 13 tribal members investigating various natural resources as part of an environmental-studies program recently established through the Fort Belknap community college. From time to time, the Assinibone and Gros Ventre conduct buffalo tours for the public. Hopes to expand ecotourism go hand in hand with an ambitious plan to revitalize the wild prairie community. In autumn of 1997, Fort Belknap became the first reservation to reintroduce the most endangered mammal of the American plains, the black-footed ferret. With Tim Vosburgh, a biologist employed by the tribes, I look over prairie dog towns at the ferret release site. He shows me mountain plovers, which prefer to nest in the open, insect-rich habitat created by the rodent colonies, and burrowing owls, which rear their young right in the prairie dogs' holes. Both species have become disturbingly rare in parts of the West as prairie dogs continue to undergo drastic declines due to poisoning programs and other problems. Later, we are joined by Mike Fox, the head tribal biologist at Fort Belknap who notes that his vision of restoration extends far beyond the current bison pasture. "I hope we can add at least another 40,000 acres," he says, "most of it from a tribal ranch now being used for cattle. Beyond that, well, we've got 400,000 acres here." The reservation is connected to U.S. Bureau of Land Management property and that leads into the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the Missouri River. "Who knows?" adds Fox. "We might have a real, migratory bison range going one day." Back at tribal offices in the town of Harlem, Poncho Bigby, the director of natural resources, tells me, "I have a stressful job dealing with tribal, state and federal agencies. Sometimes, when I get overwhelmed, I go out to be with the buffalo. They take the burden from me. I can't explain it. When whites exterminated the herds, they didn't just take away our grocery store. They annihilated our church." In the past, spirituality pervaded almost every aspect of Native American life and of all the animals in their domain on the Great Plains, bison probably received the most prayers. The hefty, hoofed creatures were never viewed by the Indians as a commodity but rather as a powerful race of beings that chose of its own accord to provide the things people need to live. Traditionally, Native Americans used bison to produce everything from meat and clothing to glue and toys for their children. Through special pacts, many tribes allowed Indians living west of the Great Divide, such as the Nez Perce, to journey over the mountains each year to hunt the herds. Nearly wiped out along with the bison, the Indians, too, ended up confined to little islands of their former terri- tory. At one time, Indians that left their reservation were captured and jailed or even killed--a fact that adds poignancy to many tribes' concern about the situation around Yellowstone National Park, where bison that stray from the reserve are rounded up and shot by state and park service officials. A year ago, when unusually heavy snowfall buried park pastures, a record 1,082 Yellowstone bison were killed. The rationale behind the modern-day slaughter, according to government authorities, is that a small percentage of those wild bison have been exposed to brucellosis (also known as undulant fever), which causes abortions in cattle. Stockmen in the region fear the loss of their herds' brucellosis-free status--a requirement for shipping cattle out of state--if they come in contact with free-roaming bison. Yellowstone bison have a special place in the heritage of all Americans, for those animals represent the only continuously surviving wild herd of the animals left in the nation. A century ago, they numbered just 25. In recent decades, the Yellowstone herd increased to nearly 4,000. But as the animals roamed in search of more winter food, some inevitably moved beyond park boundaries. Their dispersal was speeded along by the thousands of snowmobiles permitted to use park roads in winter; the machines pack down hard routes across the snow, allowing bison to cover long distances more readily than in the past. Until recently, officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services reinforced fears among Yellowstone-area ranchers that their cattle could become infected by wandering bison. Now, however, experts are aware that an animal that has been exposed to brucellosis does not necessarily carry infection. Some authorities believe that the bison's strong immune system effectively keeps the disease in check. "There is no evidence that Yellowstone bison are as severely affected by brucellosis as cattle and there has never been a documented case of a park bison having passed the microbe to cattle," says Steve Torbit, senior staff scientist at the National Wildlife Federation's Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center in Colorado. Yellowstone elk, which come into contact with livestock far more frequently than bison do, also show signs of brucellosis exposure. Yet no one has suggested liquidating the many thousands of elk that migrate out of Yellowstone every year. The bison purge, notes Torbit, "seems even less justified in light of the ITBC's standing offer to take the refugee bison, quarantine them, remove any that test positive for brucellosis and use the remainder to restock reservations." Last year, Montana's governor, Mark Racicot, suggested rounding up the animals and selling them off to the highest bidder instead of giving the animals to the tribes. He and other western politicians also proposed forming a committee to determine how many bison Yellowstone should support and then force the National Park Service to maintain that number through a culling program. Mean- while, Wyoming stockmen passed a resolution asking that bison be stopped from ranging on federal lands such as the national forests surrounding Yellowstone, while encouraging cattle to graze there. Torbit worries that selling off park wildlife and letting politicians rather than wildlife managers dictate the numbers of animals allowed to exist within national park boundaries could set a dangerous precedent. "The next step," he warns, "could be state and local politicians telling park officials, 'You've got too many grizzlies or too many trees or pelicans eating too many fish.'" The NWF scientist considers the Indian view of nature "an antidote to rhetoric that says the needs of wildlife conflict with those of people." I recall my conversation with Charlie Ereaux at the Fort Belknap Reservation. "You will not be healed until you come back in harmony with all of life," he told me. "Our medicine people say this and I've come to realize that it is true." That notion is at the core of the cur- rent efforts by the Winnebago and other tribes to restore their cultural ties with bison. "As we try to solve the controversy in Yellowstone," says Torbit, "perhaps the time has come for all Americans to learn a few things from the original buffalo experts--the Indians--about where animals belong in our lives."

Montana journalist and wildlife biologist Douglas Chadwick, who traveled from the Rockies across the Great Plains to report this article, says, "I envy ear- lier travelers who spent days passing a single herd of bison while traveling over the same area."


NWF Takes Action

Last year, the National Wildlife Federation formed a unique partnership with the 45 Native American tribes that make up the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. The goal: to seek a commonsense solution to stop the slaughter by federal and state officials of free-ranging bison that leave the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. In forming the partnership, NWF's ultimate goal is to help the Indians restore bison to tribal lands. As part of its bison education efforts, NWF operated an information kiosk last summer in the park that attracted more than 500 visitors a day. The Federation also successfully sued last year to force federal authorities to release all materials documenting their rationale for allowing the state of Montana to kill Yellowstone bison. "This was a key victory because it makes government responsive to people who are concerned that politics, rather than sound science, is driving this issue," says NWF senior scientist Steve Torbit. For more information, write: Buffalo Team, NWF, 2260 Baseline Road, Suite 100, Boulder, Colorado 80302.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on National Wildlife Federation's efforts to spare free-range bison; bison on Native American lands restores cultural outlook
Author:Chadwick, Douglas
Publication:National Wildlife
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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