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Interior invests in bison restoration on tribal lands

NPS / Jacob W. Frank

News brief: 

Federal officials will spend $25 million to grow and conserve bison herds on tribal lands. A recent order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland also calls to integrate Indigenous knowledge in efforts to restore bison across the U.S.

Tens of millions of bison, which are also called buffalo, once roamed North America. But the species was hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s. Today, wild bison number in the tens of thousands nationwide, including about 20,000 managed by tribes.

Jason Baldes works for the National Wildlife Federation and lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Bison restoration began there about seven years ago, and the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes now manage over 100 animals. Baldes said this most recent announcement is a step in the right direction for Indigenous communities nationwide.

“There's a lot of benefits to having buffalo back on the ground in our communities around education and academics,” he said. “They’re a keystone species, so that should be reason enough to restore them to the landscape because it benefits the grasses, the birds, the insects.”

He said herds also provide food for tribal members and maintain the cultural identity of Indigenous communities.

“This is a project and an effort that rights a wrong, and it's part of healing for us as Native people,” Baldes said. “It helps when other people understand that.”

The money comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and will go toward building new herds, transferring more bison from federal to tribal lands and creating new bison management agreements with tribes. The Interior Department currently manages about 11,000 animals across 12 states.

Baldes said Haaland’s announcement and Interior’s investment fails to meet the need for bison restoration on tribal grasslands across the country, but that he’s optimistic about future partnerships. He also said much of the land in the West has been prioritized for agriculture, rather than wildlife, and that land-use systems need to be updated so that bison aren’t treated “like cattle.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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