On a clear October morning on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone tribe, stood in front of a semi-trailer parked on blotchy earth surrounded by farmland, snow-capped ledges, and pale blue skies.
In front of a crowd and with narrowed eyes in the morning sun, Baldes spoke of a year-long attempt to bring buffalo back to tribal lands. An effort with the ultimate goal, he said, “from thousands of buffalo for thousands or hundreds of thousands of acres.
“These buffalo are very important to our people,” said Baldes, who led the effort. “The people of Shoshone and Arapaho, we’re all here together. For the benefit of our future generations, these children who are here will now always have buffalo in their lives. “
Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone tribe member and board member of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, holds his grandson, Aabriel, on October 16, 2021. (Katie Klingsporn / WyoFile)
Baldes pointed to the trailer behind him: “These animals came from a long journey, 14 hours on the way. So I don’t want to waste any more time. The buffalo speak for themselves. “
As if on cue, there was a rumble from the truck as the creatures moved, their hooves clinking on the trailer floor.
Soon the back door was thrown open. 24 buffalo slowly appeared under the nudge of watchdogs who silenced and incited them. After shaking up mud on landing in their new home, it only took most of them a moment to look around the gray-brown surroundings before jumping off.
A buffalo takes up its new home after being released in eastern Shoshone land on October 16, 2021. (Brad Christensen)
A donation from Missouri
The Saturday release, which moved an additional two dozen animals to a buffalo enclosure in northern Arapaho following the delivery of the Eastern Shoshone, marked the latest chapter in a long-term restoration project on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Buffalo repopulation officially began in 2016 when 10 genetically pure Iowa bison were released on 300 acres of East Shoshone land surrounded by wildlife-friendly fences.
A buffalo grazes in its new home in eastern Shoshone Land near the Wind River. (Brad Christensen)
“When they were restored in 2016, they weren’t here for 131 years,” said Baldes, who sits on the board of directors of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, a coalition of 69 tribes whose mission is to restore buffalo in Indian Country.
The first release was also the tangible result of decades of conversation between tribes and partners like the National Wildlife Federation.
“The difficult thing is actually not getting the animals,” said Garrit Voggesser, director of the NWF Tribal Partnerships, who estimates that he and Baldes have been working on this topic for 15 years. “It’s about educating people and convincing people that it’s doable and important.”
Garrit Voggesser, Tribal Partnership Director of the National Wildlife Federation, at the buffalo release on October 16, 2021. (Katie Klingsporn / WyoFile)
Efforts have come by leaps and bounds, with additional releases for the Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho tribes and small triumphs including the first buffalo to be born in its new home.
Nature conservation donated the animals for the latest delivery. The buffalo, descendants of the Wind Cave National Perk herd, were transported from the TNC’s Dunn Ranch Preserve in Missouri. According to the TNC, more bison will be handed over to ITBC member nations and other herds of indigenous communities in the coming weeks.
“Moving here from Wind Cave National Park to the Dunn property took years of coordination,” said Hayley Mortimer, state director of TNC’s Wyoming Chapter, after seeing the Eastern Shoshone delivery on October 16. “So we’re so grateful that the bison really returned home.”
“Both of our tribes are buffalo, so this is fundamental to us.”
TNC is the second largest private bison owner in the country after Ted Turner, Mortimer said. A big reason for this, she said, is that bison “have been a great conservation tool in terms of the benefits they bring to the range”.
But after realizing the importance of the animal to indigenous communities, the organization changed its strategy to achieve a second goal. Now it is working with the ITBC to distribute buffalo to tribal areas across the country.
Patti Harris-Baldes helps lure buffalo out of a trailer on October 16, 2021. (Brad Christensen)
“I just see us as trying to be good partners for the tribes and good conservation partners for the National Wildlife Federation,” she said. “It’s spot on.”
For State Representative Andi Clifford (D-Riverton), who attended the October 16 release, the arrival of the buffalo was “very powerful”. Restoring the animal “is good medicine for people,” she said.
With the new herd members, the eastern Shoshone tribe now manages 63 buffalo on approximately 1,200 hectares, while the northern Arapaho manages 35 animals on approximately 1,000 hectares.
A sense of pride
In the 1850s, more than 30 million buffalo roamed North America from what is now New Mexico to Alaska.
An episcopal missionary named Reverend John Roberts documented the number of buffaloes caught by the eastern Shoshone and Arapaho tribes in the late 19th century, Baldes said. “I think it was 1881 when 2,000 buffalos were taken from the tribes, in 1885 there were 10 and after that there weren’t any left.”
But Baldes, following in his father’s footsteps, has been working for years towards the goal of buffalo recovering on tribal land and re-existing as wild animals.
A buffalo stirs up dirt as it runs to freedom on October 16, 2021. (Katie Klingsporn / WyoFile)
“We successfully controlled six of the seven ungulates, including predators, on this reservation,” said Baldes. “There is no reason why we cannot farm buffalo the way we described above, and that is as wild as we describe it today. So we are working to restore this animal as a key species for cultural revitalization, for ecological restoration. “
The vision is to keep expanding the administrative area of each tribe and then combining them for hundreds of thousands of acres.
It’s an incremental process, Baldes said.
“And so it starts small, increases capacities, the community becomes more responsible and creates a connection for our people with buffalo”, he said. “Both of our tribes are buffalo people, so this is fundamental to us … They heal the land and they will heal us over time.”
A skull adorns the fence post near the buffalo management land of the Eastern Shoshone. (Katie Klingsporn / WyoFile)
For Dennis O’neal, who manages the Northern Arapaho Buffalo Herd on Salbeiland near Ethete, the work has paid off. He said he enjoyed the solitude of being out and about with the animals.
Managing your own buffalo herd also means a lot to his tribe, he said. It offers “a sense of pride and possession” to call the herd your own.