Historic Buffalo Transfer Shows An Alternative To Yellowstone's Annual Cull

Sep 4, 2020


It's a bright August morning in the northeast corner of Montana. Robbie Magnan, Game and Fish director for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, rose before dawn to round up 40 buffalo into a corral.

If you're experiencing quarantine fatigue, these bulls can relate.

"These guys have been in there for years," Magnan says. "Most of their life they've been in some type of quarantine."

He runs the Fort Peck Tribes' buffalo quarantine program. The program is necessary because ranchers fear that buffalo could spread an illness called brucellosis to their cattle. These animals endured two years of quarantine at Yellowstone National Park, where they started their lives, before being transferred here for a third and final year of isolation and disease testing.

"But today is a good day, because they'll go to a home where they'll never have to be tested again," Magnan says. "And they have the rest of their life to enjoy being a buffalo."

Those new homes are with 16 other tribes across the country, as far from here as Kansas, Wisconsin and Alaska. This will be the largest ever inter-tribal transfer of buffalo.

A semitrailer rolls up to the pasture to start a few of them on their journey. It takes two hours and lots of commotion for a group of tribal Game and Fish employees, plus a handful of community volunteers, to coax the 2,000-pound bulls onto the trailer through a cattle chute.

Magnan says all this hard work is worth it to restore an animal that was once the center of life for many tribes across the Great Plains and Mountain West.

Robbie Magnan (right) coaxes the buffalo into place.
Credit Loring Schaible

"I call them the one stop K-Mart or Walmart. They gave [tribes] everything they needed," Magnan says.

For the Fort Peck Tribes, that included food, clothing, shelter, tools, and ceremonial objects. Buffalo were the center of tribal economies and spiritual life throughout this region.

But in the late 19th century, white settlers hunted the animals to the brink of extinction. Ervin Carlson, President of the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), says that was no accident.

"They thought if they killed all of the buffalo, they also would get rid of the Indians," Carlson says. "But the buffalo are still here, and consequently, the tribes are still here."

The ITBC was created in 1991 to give tribes a seat at the table in managing Yellowstone buffalo. The group has fought against the annual cull of hundreds of Yellowstone buffalo, which are slaughtered as a population measure.

"We always advocated for them animals to come out of Yellowstone alive, and we always advocated to do a quarantine facility," Carlson says.

But the cattle ranching community has consistently advocated for the opposite. It took decades of negotiation for the ITBC and the Fort Peck Tribes to get this quarantine facility off the ground and to finally get just five Yellowstone buffalo transferred into the facility in 2018.

Carlson says that the first group gave the tribal quarantine program a chance to prove itself. With each passing year, more and more surplus Yellowstone buffalo have been sent to Fort Peck instead of the slaughterhouse. A little sentence about the yellowstone culling buffalo program + why.

"There's always been a lot of hoops that we've had to jump through, and it's something that we've just worked diligently for a lot of years to get this far for this happening today," Carlson says. "So today is real gratifying, just to be able to get some animals out of [the park] and out to tribes alive."

Those tribes will use the buffalo to increase the genetic diversity and overall health of their own herds.

That's a point of pride for Jonny BearCub Stiffarm. She heads up the cultural arm of the Fort Peck Tribes' bufalo program, and she's one of a dozen or so Fort Peck tribal members gathered at the pasture today to see the buffalo off.

Jonny BearCub Stiffarm is one of a dozen or so tribal members who came to see the buffalo off.
Credit Loring Schaible

"We have a drum group out here, and they'll sing the prayer songs to send the buffalo safely to their new homes, that they travel safe and receive blessings and say goodbye to them for us, and we'll send them on their way," BearCub Stiffarm says.

The drum group is called "Tatanka Oyate," which translates to "Buffalo Nation."

Growing up, BearCub Stiffarm says she never imagined that buffalo could live on tribal land.

"We only read about buffalo in a book. We only saw buffalo at a zoo or in a wildlife preserve that was non-Indian," she says.

But for the Fort Peck community, and the 16 other tribes that will receive these buffalo as gifts, that will no longer be the case.

A buffalo boards the livestock trailer that will take it to its new home with another tribe.
Credit Loring Schaible

A buffalo boards the livestock trailer that will take it to its new home with another tribe.

"You'll notice here at this gathering that there's some real little children here. Buffalo will always have been a part of their lives," BearCub Stiffarm says. "And so for a lot of us older generation, to be able to see that circle become complete has really been meaningful."

The ITBC and the Fort Peck Tribes say this is the first of many large inter-tribal buffalo transfers out of the quarantine program. This winter, they plan to transfer 30 to 40 animals, an entire family group, to one lucky tribe that can prove it has the resources to care for them.

Come spring, they're expecting a new shipment of buffalo from Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Reservation. It will be only a fraction of the park's surplus population, as hundreds more will go to slaughter. Still, today's historic transfer sends a message: that politics and red tape won't continue to stand in the way of tribal buffalo restoration.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.