Native American lawmakers seek federal help on Montana bison

Native American lawmakers in Montana are asking the Biden administration to craft a plan to reintroduce wild bison to areas in and around Glacier National Park and the Charles M

BILLINGS, Mont. — Native American lawmakers in Montana on Tuesday asked the Biden administration to help craft a plan to reintroduce wild bison to areas in and around Glacier National Park and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

The request was made by eight members of the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus in a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. It comes after Gov. Greg Gianforte and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have sought to make it harder to reintroduce bison to areas of the state that the burly animals once roamed.

“It feels like during this legislative session, Native concerns and even buffalo as part of Native culture have just been invisible,” said Running Wolf, a Democrat from Browning and member of the Blackfeet tribe. “Americans tribes in Montana have a deep-rooted connection with the buffalo, from commerce to religion to cultural values.”

But ranchers in Montana have long opposed efforts to restore the large animals, fearing they could compete with livestock for public grazing space and spread the disease brucellosis. That’s an infectious disease carried by Yellowstone National Park bison that can cause animals to prematurely abort their young.

Haaland’s office did not have an immediate response to Tuesday’s letter. Last year her predecessor, David Bernhardt, announced a 10-year initiative to advance bison restoration efforts that had languished for years at the federal level.

The Blackfeet tribe has its own herd and wants to expand onto adjacent federal lands including in Glacier National Park and the Rocky Mountain Front. A conservation group, the American Prairie Reserve, has a large herd in central Montana near the 1.1 million-acre (445,150-hectare) Charles M. Russell refuge. But it has faced backlash from the local agricultural community over its ambitions to establish a larger area for bison to roam.

As many as 30 million to 60 million bison once inhabited most of North America, according to federal wildlife officials. Mass slaughters drove them to near extinction, and today there are roughly 11,000 wild bison on public lands in 12 states.

Yellowstone National Park is home to one of the largest remnant populations of the animals, and park administrators have been trying for years to expand a program to send portions of those bison herds to tribes. Hundreds of bison annually that leave the park are shot by hunters or shipped to slaughter because of worries about brucellosis.

Hundreds of thousands of bison that have been interbred with cattle are raised on private ranches in the U.S. and Canada for their meat.

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