(Daily Montanan) A herd of at least 75 or 85 bison may be released even within a year or so to land in the Chief Mountain area of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, with freedom to wander onto their native land, now Glacier National Park, according to the Buffalo Program of the Blackfeet Nation.
“There’s no fences, no boundary fences, between the park and our land,” said Ervin Carlson, director of the Buffalo Program. “So those animals would venture into the park’s side, and the park is really receptive to that, and so I think it’s kind of a win-win situation for the tribe and for the park.”
Bison used to live on the land that’s now in and around Glacier, and that’s something visitors to the park should know, said Kyle Langley, a seasonal archaeologist for the park. The University of Montana graduate’s 2021 master’s thesis explores the history of the animals in the park.
“A lot of people come to Glacier,” said Langley, of Columbia Falls. “They expect to see mountain goats and sheep and bears. For some reason, bison have eluded people’s awareness that they were here, basically. They were exterminated locally in the mid-1800s, and were it not for that, they’d still be here. And they were an important part of Glacier’s story.”
Now, it’s not only realistic they’ll be back, it’s imminent, at least relative to their long history in the region.
In 2009, the Blackfoot Confederacy, made up of the Blackfeet Nation, Kainai Nation, Piikani Nation, and Siksika Nation, launched the Iinnii Initiative in part to create a home for buffalo to return to, according to the Blackfeet Nation. Some 30 million buffalo used to roam the continent.
Since then, the Blackfeet have welcomed members of the Elk Island Herd home, and “hopefully,” its members are within a year of wandering into Glacier, Carlson said. That herd originated in the area, he said; in the past, calves were captured and taken across the mountains to the Salish and Kootenai land, and many of them later ended up in Canada in Elk Island National Park.
“We worked with them and brought calves back, and now, those calves are a couple of years, three years old, and reproducing,” Carlson said. “So the herd is growing, so they should be ready to go. The genetics have been real clean on them.”
On a daily basis, he said staff at the Buffalo Spirit Hills Ranch just outside Browning watch over the animals and work on fencing. He said other partners such as the park and non-government organizations have been working on the project as well.
Part of the effort involved land negotiation, and Carlson said they didn’t want to infringe on anyone’s leases, so they did some trading.
“That’s in place now,” Carlson said. “We’re just needing some fencing, and from then on, I think things will become a reality.”
The park has evidence of bison. Their bones have been found in many places on the east side of Glacier, from alpine locations to ones in river valley bottoms, said Sierra Mandelko, cultural resources specialist for Glacier National Park. Although fewer than 2 percent of the park has been inventoried for cultural resources, she said, bison were part of the landscape.
“It could be difficult to picture bison on this landscape: Imagine Saint Mary Visitor Center with a herd of bison on the prairies! Through research, we know this picture occurred often in our past,” Mandelko said in an email.
The animals adapted to the plains and the Rocky Mountain Front, and she said the park is affected by the loss of the keystone species. As such, their restoration would benefit the natural and cultural resources of the area, and the park places value on the bison as a resource.
“Restoration could lead to resiliency among perpetuating traditional lifeways, improved soil health, and benefit flora and fauna that have evolved along with this amazing animal,” Mandelko said.
She also said she’s excited to share Glacier’s past with the many visitors to the park, and many historic themes are just now being explored in contemporary research. She said she was thankful Langley chose the park for his research, and she also said the park is working with the Blackfeet.
“The Blackfeet have a rich cultural association with bison, and the lands known as Glacier National Park,” Mandelko said. “The Park continues to work towards integrating programming that is respectful of traditional practices and provides an opportunity for cross cultural exchange.”
As part of his thesis, Langley had to explore some of the more remote corners of the park, such as the Belly River in the northeast section. He couldn’t share specifics in order to protect sites from looting, but he offered a small glimpse into the work he did mapping the presence of the animals.
“You kind of have to love bushwhacking a little bit just to be an archaeologist in Glacier,” Langley said.
The project sounded like an adventure in his thesis as well: “This endeavor was incredibly rewarding; from climbing up snowfields at 8,000 feet to packrafting remote river systems, I was able to get a feel for the landscape, flora and fauna which these sites exist within.”
The thesis is called “Buffalo in the Mountains: Mapping Evidence of Historical Bison Presence and Bison Hunting in Glacier National Park,” and Langley said the path to studying bison in Glacier evolved from a natural place for a young archaeologist.
“You’re trained to idolize the stone tools, projectile points,” he said.
The field holds a fascination with those “pointy tools,” he said, and they’re helpful in the diagnostic work the professionals do. In his thesis, Langley said bison might have been the last thing on his mind at first, but he learned archaeology “is ultimately about people, not things.”
Why would someone find a projectile point on a high alpine pass, for instance?
“In 2016, I was hired on as a seasonal archaeologist for Glacier National Park,” Langley wrote. “In the performance of my job duties as well as through reading oral traditions, academic articles, and listening to contemporary descendants of these cultures, I came to learn one very important thing about the people who had lived here for thousands of years: bison were inextricably linked to their culture and livelihood.”
In the course of his work, Langley said he learned of the Iinnii Initiative, and its goal to restore bison to their traditional lands inspired him: “To see bison once again roam within the park would be incredible and culturally important, and my thesis project represents my wish to imagine what once was and what could once again be.”
Carlson figures bison in Glacier will be a draw for tourists, and he said the park doesn’t like to see cattle venturing inside its boundaries, so the project will be a win on both fronts.
“They’d rather have the buffalo,” he said.
He said he hopes the tribe can work out a partnership with the National Park Service to manage lands and share revenue, and he’s pleased that the current superintendent is a willing partner because that hasn’t always been the case.
Carlson said he believes visitors to Glacier will be enthusiastic to see bison there as well: “They’ve been gone from there for a long time, and they’ve been in that area (historically), so I think that people would be really excited about it.”