Two bison check out their new home. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky, image used with permission
As of November 2, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe had restored six of the seven ungulates found in the area of Wind River Reservation in Wyoming before the arrival of Lewis and Clark: moose, whitetail and mule deer, elk, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. On November 3, came No. 7: bison, a result of a partnership among the Service, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Eastern Shoshone.
“Recognizing both the ecological significance of buffalo as well as the importance to tribal communities, NWF has partnered with tribes for over 20 years to restore and protect bison,” says Garrit Voggesser, NWF’s tribal partnerships director.
Pat Hnilicka, project leader of the Lander Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Lander, Wyoming, says that one of the jobs that the partners worked on was habitat improvement. They removed about a mile of decrepit barbed-wire fencing that bison could get tangled in. They are also working to restore some irrigated meadows to make them more productive and can support more bison.
Dan Dewey and a Service crew remove more than a mile of decrepit barbed-wire fence, a potential hazard to bison, within the pasture on the Wind River Reservation. Photo by Pat Hnilicka/USFWS
Beyond ensuring that the land would be hospitable to bison, the project also needed bison that were of the type that roamed there hundreds of years ago.
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The Service’s Lee Jones worked to find a herd of bison that not only fit that genetic requirement but also had a sterling reputation for being disease-free.
The disease brucellosis has cost billions in direct expenses and money spent to develop a treatment. Brucellosis infects bison, and Jones says, the disease “is a huge concern in Wyoming.”
That led her to Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. The bison there trace their lineage to the National Bison Range in Montana, and are ecologically appropriate for restoration in the Rocky Mountains. Iowa has also been brucellosis- and tuberculosis-free for many years, Jones says.
So on November 3, 10 bison were released on the reservation.
“While this was a culmination of years of hard work, it was a new beginning, not an ending. We plan to release more this coming fall,” Voggesser says. “We hope to have hundreds of buffalo on thousands of acres in the next few years.”
With those 10 bison, they are starting a new herd, which is not easy, Jones says. “It is an incredible step they took, absolutely incredible.”
The day of the release was equally incredible.
People watch the release of the bison. Photo by Pat Hnilicka/USFWS
“’This is the best day of my life bringing the bison here,’” Jones remembers a bystander telling her.
This project is “a career highlight,” Hnilicka says.
“Today, boy-shan bi-den— buffalo return in the Shoshone language—has become a reality,” says Jason Baldes, bison representative for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. ”This restoration effort, 40 years in the making, returns buffalo to our lands, our culture, our community and generations to come.”
Note: While bison and buffalo are used interchangeably, the name for the North American animal is bison.