Hundreds of wild bison would be transferred from federal lands to a South Dakota American Indian Reservation and a North Dakota national park as a first step in the latest initiative to restore the burly animals to Western U.S. lands that they once roamed by the millions, federal and tribal officials said Friday.
Up to 200 American bison, also known as buffalo, would be transferred to South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation this fall, with plans for a herd of 1,500 within five years, according to tribal officials and the World Wildlife Fund, which is helping pay for the effort.
An unspecified number of bison also would be moved from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to Theodore Roosevelt National Park within the next few months. Those animals would be studied to see how much they integrated with an existing herd at the park in western North Dakota.
For the Lakota Indians of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, the transfer represents a chance to reclaim some of the tribe’s historical ties to bison that were lost when the huge herds that once migrated across their homeland were killed off by white settlers more than a century ago.
The animals will roam a 44-square-mile expanse of prairie grassland known as the Wolakota Buffalo Range and provide the tribe with both food and cultural sustenance, said Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of the Rosebud Sioux Economic Development Corporation.
“In our creation story, buffalo and humans emerged from the same place,” Little Elk said. “At one point they took care of us, and now it’s our turn to take care of them. ... When the buffalo is stronger, we will be stronger as well.”
The transfers are being coordinated with the U.S. Department of Interior.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Thursday announced a 10-year initiative to advance bison restoration efforts that have been slowed by worries about the animals spreading disease and opposition from some ranchers, who see bison as potential competition for grazing space.
As many as 30 million to 60 million bison once roamed across most of North America, according to federal wildlife officials. Mass slaughters drove them to near extinction by the late 1800s. Today there are roughly 11,000 wild bison on public lands in 12 states.
Details on where the animals would come from were still being worked out. The U.S. government manages bison herds in Yellowstone National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Montana’s National Bison Range and other locations.
Yellowstone is home to one of the largest remnant populations of the animals. Park administrators have been trying for years to expand a program to send portions of those bison herds to tribes or other suitable locations.
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.