The news that 10 yearling buffalo were on their way to the Wind River Reservation came as a last minute surprise to most Northern Arapaho tribal members. But that didn’t stop more than 100 from gathering on a sunny Wednesday morning to welcome them.
Elders sat in a neat row of folding chairs with blankets in their laps. Two busloads of students from Arapahoe Elementary and Charter High Schools crowded around the perimeter of the a wire fence, staking out their spots to watch the animals’ release.
Behind the heavy metal doors of a livestock trailer, the buffalo were just as eager to get out. They traveled more than 500 miles from the federally-run National Bison Range in Western Montana to become the Northern Arapaho’s first tribally managed buffalo herd.
After a prayer and a flag song, the buffalo finally barreled off the trailer and onto Northern Arapaho land. Devin Oldman said that moment was one of the proudest moments of his career with the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation office.
“It’s been a long time coming, so it feels good. It’s spiritual,” he said.
But getting the animals here wasn’t easy.
“There’s been a lot of phone calls and a lot of disagreements and a lot of arguments with people in control,” Oldman said. “We finally got them to take a look at our people and our land and understand what we need.”
Prior to white colonization, scientists estimate that some 30 to 60 million buffalo roamed North America, mostly in the Great Plains. But by the late 1800s, overhunting by settlers and a deliberate extermination campaign by the federal government brought buffalo to the brink of extinction.
Meanwhile, tribes like the Northern Arapaho lost not only a dietary staple but a cornerstone of their culture, spirituality and traditional economy. By 1885, just a few years after the U.S. Army marched the Northern Arapaho to what is now known as the Wind River Reservation, there wasn’t a single buffalo living there. And there wouldn’t be until 2016 when the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which shares Wind River with the Northern Arapaho, began a conservation herd of its own.
Oldman said that Northern Arapaho people have never forgotten the significance of buffalo in their ancestors’ lives. But in the buffalo’s 131 year absence from Wind River, many Northern Arapaho families took up cattle ranching to support themselves. And in 1940, the tribe acquired its own cattle ranch.
A Ranching Tribe
In the Owl Creek mountains just outside of Thermopolis, the Northern Arapaho Tribe runs about 4,000 head on 300,000 acres. On a section that overlooks Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River Canyon, ranch manager Ransom Logan said the views on the Arapaho Ranch are “better than Jackson Hole.”
Generations of Northern Arapaho people have learned the ropes of ranching here, and Logan said even some who have never raised cattle have a deep sense of pride for the place. Over the years, he said he’s heard rumblings about buffalo restoration.
“That’s going to be a hard one to debate with ranchers, because they dang sure ain’t going to want their livelihood infected by buffalo,” Logan said.
This debate has been raging for decades in the West. Ranchers say that buffalo carry a bacterial disease called brucellosis, which causes cattle to abort their fetuses. They argue that even herds like the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s, made up of animals who have tested negative for brucellosis and are vaccinated against the disease, are a threat to their livelihood.
Buffalo conservationists point out that brucellosis is a bovine disease, first introduced to buffalo by cattle, and that there’s never been a documented case of the disease spreading in the opposite direction. Some research shows that wild elk, not buffalo, are the true culprits that ranchers should be concerned about.
Regardless, brucellosis has been on Northern Arapaho people’s minds over the years as they’ve debated buffalo restoration. It was the basis on which the tribe’s General Council voted down a resolution to bring buffalo back to Wind River in 2010, and why some tribal members are still uneasy about it.
Looking out over a group of black angus heiffers on the Arapaho Ranch, Ransom Logan said he isn’t opposed to a tribal buffalo herd as long as restoration efforts are well-researched and methodical. But he admits that he, an Arapaho man, doesn’t feel much of a connection to the animal.
“I’m out of touch as far as that goes. 'Cause we can say that this is where we came from, but we can’t say that this is how we lived. 'Cause I’ve never lived off of buffalo,” Logan said.
When asked what led him to a life as a rancher, Logan talked about his childhood in Arapahoe, and summer afternoons riding around the reservation on horseback with his cousins. He said that working here at the Arapaho Ranch makes him feel connected to his roots, and like he’s helping Arapaho people.
“And I can see why they’d want to bring [buffalo] back as far as the culture and understanding where our tribe came from and how we lived, I can see it from that point,” Logan said. “But at the same time, it dang sure ought to be thought out pretty well.”
A Herd for the Next Generation
Things started to slow down by midday at the Northern Arapaho Tribe’s brand new buffalo enclosure. The crowd thinned out, children boarded their busses and headed back to school.
The buffalo were settling into life on 48 acres, though the tribe has plans to expand that fenced-off area to 600 acres in the coming months. Devin Oldman, who was part of the team who worked to bring the buffalo here, stuck around, dreaming of a day when this herd might grow large enough to sustain both tribes on the Wind River Reservation.
“The goal is for them to be managed as a wildlife species, and to get these buffalo into people’s homes, to be able to use them again as we did once,” Oldman said.
A future partnership with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, which manages a growing herd of 33 buffalo about 10 miles away from this enclosure, is on the table according to Oldman. But soon after securing the transfer of these animals, Oldman left his job with the Northern Arapaho Tribal Historic Preservation Office. He said the work had become too political, and that from now on, he’ll continue to advocate for buffalo restoration as a community member.
“Someday when I’m 80 or 90 and we have a huge herd, if I’m blessed by the creator to live that long, and I have great grandchildren or great-great grandchildren, I’ll be able to see that reciprocity. You know, for the future,” Oldman said. “That’s what I was thinking about when we started this. I want my kids and grandkids to have buffalo back in their lives.”
With the noise and the onlookers gone, the 10 buffalo roamed closer to the perimeter of their enclosure, 50 yards or so from where Oldman and his family were watching them. Oldman knelt to the ground and held his two small daughters close while he sang to the buffalo in Arapaho, welcoming them home.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at firstname.lastname@example.org.