America's Plains Indians bring back bison to their lands

Plains Indians and conservationists are reintroducing the iconic American buffalo to public lands and reservations, a century after the creature's decline.

The American bison is a mighty creature to behold. Covered in thick dark brown fur, the massive bovines can grow to be more than two meters tall and weigh over a ton. At one time, more than 60 million of them thundered across the grasslands of North America from Arctic Alaska all the way south to the Gulf of Mexico.

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It is hardly surprising the animals — also commonly known as buffalo — were an essential part of these ecosystems and vital to the survival of many Native American peoples that lived alongside them.

All that changed during the 1800s when European settlers systematically hunted and slaughtered the massive herds, almost annihilating the species. By 1889, only 541 bison were left.

"We virtually wiped out the bison and much of it had to do with westward expansion and with atrocities committed against Native Americans," said Chamois Andersen, a spokesperson for the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife.

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Now the descendants of those Native Americans are helping bring back these symbols of the American West by giving them a new home on the reservations of America's Plains Indians.

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An enduring connection

One of those descendants is Jason Baldes from the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He's also the executive director of the Wind River Advocacy Center in Fort Washakie, Wyoming. His ancestors' lives were closely linked to the large mammals.

"Rather than shop at the mall, the buffalo was our Walmart," Baldes said — referring to the giant US retail chain.

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Plains Indians — Native Americans who lived on the grassland plains stretching along the middle and western parts of Canada and the United States — relied on every part of the animal for survival — from food, to clothing and shelter.

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Baldes thinks the loss of the bison herds was almost as devastating to his people as the forced relocation onto reservations by the US government, largely in the 19th century. 

"Their return is a blessing," he said.

Since the late 19th century, the bison population in the US has slowly recovered to about 500,000 — most of them raised as livestock for food.  Today, the animals mostly live in national parks and a reserves. They have few other places to go.

By returning them to Native American lands, they have the chance to expand their habitat once more. For Baldes, these efforts aren't just about wildlife conservation. They also offer an opportunity to reconnect to a way of life that was extinguished over a century ago.

Baldes is in charge of the bison recovery efforts on the Wind River Reservation. He looks after a small herd of wild bison on 300 acres (121 hectares) of pasture in the heart of the 2.4 million acre reservation.

He started back in 2016 with 10 bison. That number has grown to 28 animals. The ultimate goal is to provide a sustainable habitat for a much larger herd on 400,000 acres of suitable land, allowing the bison to be managed as a wild species, rather than as captive livestock.

Jason Baldes's herd at Wind River Indian Reservation is only 28 animals strong but there is room to grow

Bison versus the US

Baldes's small herd is descended from wild, genetically pure buffalo rescued from near-extinction in Yellowstone National Park. At present, around 3000 bison live there.

As of 2019, about 20,000 buffalo live on one million acres of public and tribal land in the US, where they are kept for ceremonial, food, and conservation purposes.  It's been the culmination of a long struggle, according to Baldes.

"There are powerful ranching interests in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming opposed to buffalo recovery efforts," he said.

That's partly because there is a risk that roaming buffalo could carry brucellosis. Bison initially contracted the infectious disease after coming into contact with non-native domestic cattle. While it has largely been eradicated among livestock, it persists among some wild bison. The disease seems to have only a marginal impact on the wild animals, but can be devastating to cattle populations.

Part of the Yellowstone herd is culled each year to prevent overgrazing and keep the population stable, so animals don't stray from the park. 

In the past, wildlife advocates have sued government agencies to prevent the slaughter of Yellowstone's buffalo. And if animals do wander out of the park, they've insisted they be relocated to buffalo reserves after they've been quarantined and deemed healthy.

American bison once thundered across the grasslands from Alaska to Texas. Only small populations like this one in Yellowstone are left today

These legal steps led to the successful transfer of Yellowstone's buffalo to the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Reservations in Montana. In 2018, the park's officials also announced the creation of a new program to capture and quarantine excess buffalo with the aim of establishing disease-free herds across the nation. These herds could help restore a disappearing habitat. 

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A symbolic return

Roughly 170 million acres of tall grasslands existed on the US Great Plains during the 1800s. Around four percent remains intact.

"It's really a threatened environment," said Andersen from Defenders of Wildlife. Conservationists hope to return the bison to at least part of that land.

For them, the symbolism and the significance of buffalo conservation is important, because their presence not only stirs the imagination of a distant past, but also quite literally shapes the landscape.

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The grass-munching, mud-wallowing beasts also create habitats for other native species like prairie dogs to thrive. Their shaggy fur coats disperse the seeds of native plants and their plentiful urine and feces fertilize the grasslands.

If all goes to plan, conservationists hope the bison can resume their role as regulators of the prairie.

"The bison evolved with the plains and the plains evolved with the bison," Andersen said. "It's an incredible symbiotic relationship."

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Pest control - or profit?

In March 2016, the Polish government decided to triple the amount of logging allowed in the Bialowieza forest. Since then, at least 10,000 trees have been felled. The government says the reason for the deforestation was to fight an infestation of bark beetles. But scientists say the insects only affect conifers. Critics say pest control is just a cover for those who stand to benefit economically.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

The alleged 'baddie'

The bark beetle loves to eat spruce, which is known as the queen of the conifers. But scientists say we shouldn't fell spruce trees, even if they're infected with beetles. They provide a habitat for worms, insects and fungi, and the dead tree trunks are used as nesting sites by woodpeckers.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

A large scale operation

The Bialowieza forest spans Poland and Belarus. 35 percent of the forest on the Polish side of the border is made up of protected national parks and nature reserves. The government says logging only happens in cultivated areas, rather than natural old-growth forest. But activists say the clearance is far more extensive.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

Last of its kind

The European bison is the last surviving species of wild cattle on the continent - and the Bialowieza forest is home to Europe’s largest free-roaming herd. As early as 1795, the Russian Tsar put the area under strict protection. Poachers were even sentenced to death by poisoning.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

Colorful inhabitant

The Syrian woodpecker is one of 1,200 animal species living in the forest. Originally from the Middle East, it arrived in Europe around a century ago with a taste for cherries and nuts.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

Save the trees

For hundreds of years, the 150,000-hectare forest was left in peace. And it should stay that way, environmentalists say. The Polish government has closed off the logging area in an attempt to avoid disturbances from activists. And police and forest management security personnel supervise any protests to make sure activists don't chain themselves to the machinery.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

A warning from the EU

The clearing of Bialowieza forest has also become an issue outside of Poland. Recently, activists in Berlin protested against it. Now even the EU is getting involved, warning that logging activity may be added to the ongoing EU treaty violation proceedings against Poland if the country doesn't stick to the commission's deforestation ban.

Bialowieza forest: Polish treasure gets chopped down

Trees are friends

This young man's method of protesting won't get him into trouble. But seven other activists have arrested after interfering with wood harvesters. They face penalties and imprisonment due to a "breach of the peace".