Elk Island bison begin journey ‘home’ to Blackfeet Nations reserve

Click to play video: 'Bison return to land of their ancestors' Bison return to land of their ancestors
WATCH ABOVE: On Monday, 88 young bison will be moved from Elk Island National Park to the Blackfeet Nation reserve in Montana. The bison are descendents of a herd originally from the reserve, and leaders say their return is a long-awaited homecoming. Julia Wong reports – Apr 3, 2016

It’s a long-awaited homecoming for a herd of bison.

On Monday, 88 bison will return to the Blackfeet Nation reserve in Montana from their current home in Elk Island National Park. Originally 89 were scheduled to make the trip but one bison is being held back by Parks Canada.

The bison will leave for Montana on Monday morning. Julia Wong/Global News

The reasons for the move are two-fold: to return the powerful and majestic creatures to their ancient homeland and to help wild herds grow along the Rocky Mountains.

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The bison are roughly one year old and are the direct descendents of a bison herd originally from the reserve that was sent to Canada more than 100 years ago.

That bison had originally been collected from a number of locations in Montana in the 1800s and they made up the Pablo-Allard herd. The government of Canada eventually bought the herd and moved them to the national park.

Stephen Flemming, the superintendent of Elk Island National Park, said the national park is the country’s site for the recovery of bison.

“Plain and wood bison herds for the entire country come out of here and increasingly we’re also sending them to the U.S.,” he said.

However, this is the first time Parks Canada will be sending bison to Blackfeet Nation.

“Today is a really special day,” Flemming said during a media tour on Sunday.

“This is the conservation herd that’s disease-free, pure bison genes and it’s really valuable.”

Harry Barnes is the chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, which is the governing body of the Blackfeet tribe.

Barnes called the return of the bison, also known as buffalo, to the reserve “historic”.

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“These buffalo really started in Browning, Montana. Then in 1907, they were sold to Canada and now they’ll be returning home,” he said.

The animal is important to the Blackfeet Nation culturally and spiritually.

“This return is building on an existing Blackfeet herd. It’s raising the consciousness of our young people and all our people of this animal within our culture. We learned a lot of good lessons from the buffalo, valuable life lesson,” Barnes said.

“The goal is to create that conservation corridor that will return that ecosystem to what it is. These buffalo will become part of that system they were in.”

Ervin Carlson, the buffalo project manager for the Blackfeet tribe, said there is great significance for the animal to go home.

“They were a big part of us from the beginning and so bringing them back home to where they originated from is the biggest significance of these animals. They were there, part of us,” he said.

“They are a big spiritual part of us. The buffalo mean a whole lot to us in that way.”

Keith Aune, the director of the bison program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said there is a larger goal for the bison to return to their ancient homeland – to help create more wild populations of the animal.

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“They’ll be nurtured and husbanded by the Blackfeet Nations down there. They need to grow up, get mature and become reproductive on their own. They will be grown into a larger herd. Ultimately they want to use these animals as a source to create a wild herd that extends in geographies along the Rocky Mountain front,” he said.

“These become the source animals for growing the much larger herd in a much larger landscape, which is something we desired to do in the bison conservation world – put bison on large landscapes where they can become ecologically functional again.”

Aune said that bison aren’t endangered but he calls them vulnerable.

“We’re trying to really raise up larger herds sand more of them to prevent them from becoming endangered. Providing new places and new geographies for bison and allowing them to grow into larger herds is fundamentally important for the future of this species.”

Flemming said Parks Canada and the Blackfeet Nation are in discussions to send more herds back to Montana in the future.


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