After Historic Bison Transfer, Eastern Shoshone Look To Expand Their Herd
The sun was setting over a 300 acre pasture near the center of the Wind River Reservation. By the time a semi-truck rolled through the gates, the bison it was hauling had been on the road for more than 10 hours.
Their arrival from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana marked the first ever nation-to-nation transfer from one tribe’s bison restoration program to another.
"This is important as an exercise of our sovereignty," Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe's Buffalo Representative, said.
"These nations are making an agreement to share Yellowstone Buffalo without the intervention of the state or the feds."
According to Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone have always been buffalo people. Even in the 131 years when not a single one lived on the Wind River Reservation. But when ten of the animals arrived on Eastern Shoshone land in 2016, something clicked.
"When that first buffalo hoof hit the ground right here, that was when it really hit home," Baldes said, standing near a fenced enclosure where those bison spent their first night on Wind River. "It makes you cry. It's like bringing your family home."
Since then, the herd has grown from 10 animals to 33. Someday, Baldes would like to see it number in the hundreds, maybe even 1000 bison.
"Here at Wind River, we have the habitat available," he said. "It's the politics that holds it up."
Even though there's never been a documented case of the disease brucellosis being spread from bison to cattle, many ranchers fear that scenario. Some of those ranchers are part of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, which shares the Wind River Reservation with the Eastern Shoshone.
In order to expand the range for the growing herd, Baldes said the two tribes would need to create a partnership. But in 2009, the same year that the Eastern Shoshone approved a resolution to bring bison to their land, the Northern Arapaho rejected one.
"Well I think the main reason they went against it is the Arapaho Ranch," Western Thayer, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council, said. "They have a big ranch, thousands of acres, and they're probably fearful of brucellosis."
Thayer is a former Wind River Game Warden. For Baldes' expansion plan to be realized, he said bison would have to be classified as wildlife under the tribes’ joint Fish and Game Code.
Clarinda Calling Thunder, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said Thayer's guess about why her tribe rejected a bison resolution is spot on.
"One of our tribal members got up and said, 'Oh no, we can't mix our cattle with the bison.' And people just believed it, so it was voted down," Calling Thunder said.
A rancher herself, Calling Thunder doesn't believe that bison are a threat to cattle. She trusts research that shows elk are responsible for transmitting the disease. When it comes to co-managing a herd with the Eastern Shoshone, though, she’s not sure all tribal members would be on board.
"It would be okay with me," she said. "But some people, it wouldn't be. You know? My grandkids are Shoshone. I'm Arapaho. I don't see anything wrong with that, but there's some people that do."
Baldes said he'll keep pushing for that partnership, and for bison to be managed as wildlife on the Wind River Reservation. For him, it's about much more than expanding resources for the herd.
"The work continues to ensure that buffalo people are in some way connected with buffalo, and both of the tribes here are buffalo people," Baldes said.
That's the spirit behind the gift of five young bulls from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
The truck hauling the bison came to a stop. A drum group played prayer and welcome songs for the animals. Members of both tribes gathered to watch as they barreled off the trailer one by one and ran into their new home.
"I feel better now that they're on the ground," Baldes said. "These are Shoshone buffalo. So anyone who's Shoshone Tribe, these are your buffalo. Hopefully with the right steps forward we can expand the range so that our buffalo benefit everybody."