American Indians depended on the buffalo for hundreds of years for food, clothing, tools and medicine. Now today's tribes want to return the favor by helping preserve one of the last genetically pure herds in North America.
The Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing 5,000 rolling acres in northeastern Montana for 50 wild bison from Yellowstone National Park. Their neighbors to the west at the Fort Belknap reservation have also asked for a role in managing the bison.
The animals are part of a federal quarantine program and are in need of a home. The tribes say they are ready for them.
"The Native American probably wouldn't have survived if it wasn't for the buffalo," said Robert Magnan, the head of Fort Peck's fish and game department. "Now it's our turn to help the buffalo instead of turning a blind eye to them."
But they're finding resistance from ranchers, farmers and lawmakers _ and, perhaps most frustratingly, silence from the state wildlife officials now considering sites for the five years remaining in the quarantine program.
Magnan recently gave The Associated Press a snowmobile tour of the land set aside for the bison near the Canadian border about 12 miles north of the tribes' headquarters in Poplar.
The landscape is white, barren and seemingly lifeless until the snowmobile's roar surprises a group of elk, and a few minutes later, sends a coyote scurrying.
In the middle of it all sits a 26-mile fence designed to contain the buffalo. The top and bottom strands of the "wildlife-friendly" fence are smooth to allow deer to jump over and pronghorn antelope and other creatures to pass under. Inside is a solar-paneled well to provide water for the bison regardless of the season.
The $200,000 price tag is well worth it, the tribes and conservationists say. Yellowstone National Park's estimated 3,500 bison are a rare bunch _ they are the only herd to never be domesticated and the largest of only a handful of herds that have not been crossbred with cattle.
"We need to conserve their wildness as much as their genetics," said Jonathon Proctor, regional representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "If we were to lose the Yellowstone bison or even a part of the genetic diversity of the Yellowstone herd, we lose it forever. The way they are managed right now, there's the threat of just that."
Ranchers and farmers have long fought to keep wild bison from wandering out of the park due to concerns about disease and property damage. Thousands of bison have been slaughtered over the last three decades as a matter of public policy when they stray from their Yellowstone refuge, part of a slaughter program that aims to protect Montana's cattle industry against the disease brucellosis, which can cause livestock to abort fetuses.
In 2000, state and federal agencies created the Interagency Tribal Management Plan that aimed to balance the concerns of the cattle industry and the goal of maintaining a wild, free-ranging bison population. But since then, at least 3,800 bison have been killed.
In 2005, some Yellowstone bison were spared from the slaughter and placed in a facility just outside the park as part of the quarantine program to ensure they were brucellosis-free. Conservationists are hopeful that these animals represent the first step in reintroducing wild bison to the lands in the West they once dominated.
But landowners are fiercely resisting Montana wildlife officials' plans to relocate those quarantined animals to other parts of the state. At least six bills before the Montana Legislature would stymie relocation, with the strongest one sponsored by Sen. John Brenden of Scobey, which lies to the north of the Fort Peck reservation.
Brenden wants a two-year moratorium on relocating bison until state officials write a management plan for what he calls "woolly tanks" that can wreak havoc on crops and land.
"It doesn't matter where it is, as far as I'm concerned _ on a reservation, private land or any other land," he said. "Until we get this bison problem fixed, why would we want to jeopardize the state of Montana by spreading bison all over?"
The tribes say their proposals have been met with silence from state wildlife officials who will make the decision on where to relocate the bison. Nobody from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has formally responded to their proposal or ventured out to see what they've done to prepare for the Yellowstone bison, Magnan said.
"I'd like for them to treat us like another government and work with us. Tell us yes or no, give us a definite answer, don't just say nothing," he said.
From the state's perspective, the matter is complicated by a lawsuit filed by four conservation groups last year after Ted Turner agreed to take in 86 Yellowstone bison in exchange for 75 percent of their offspring. The conservation groups challenging the deal said the move amounts to commercialization of a wild herd that is supposed to be in the public trust.
In January, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier cited that lawsuit as a reason for the state agency to think twice before relocating any of the quarantined bison to Indian reservations.
A plaintiff in the lawsuit, the Buffalo Field Campaign, said it did not equate the two situations.
"We would not oppose the bison being reintroduced to their original caretakers," said Darrell Geist, the group's habitat coordinator. "FWP can make the decision without fear of litigation from us."
On Thursday, Maurier's position appeared to soften. He told the AP in an interview the agency would consider splitting up the quarantined bison, moving some to Indian reservations and some to state-owned wildlife management areas. That includes the 50 bison now at the quarantine facility and possibly those on Turner's ranch, too.
But first the agency must wait and see what the Legislature does, he said. Then the Fort Peck facilities must be examined and regulations drafted.
"Our first step will be as soon as the session is over, I will be taking a trip up there and reviewing those facilities myself," Maurier said.
That's potentially good news for the Fort Peck tribes, which want to grow the Yellowstone bison into a 150-head "cultural herd" distinct from a commercial herd with cattle genes about four miles away. The cultural herd would be used for education and for tourism, with offspring going to ceremonies and for meat for the sick, poor and elderly.
"The genetically pure bison of Yellowstone is probably the closest we'll ever get to our ancestors. It's very important here that we get back to our culture," Magnan said.