DENVER (CBS4/AP) — 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 Prairie 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.
Approximately 10 bison also would be moved from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, possibly in August. The arsenal’s animals are intended to refresh bloodlines of the national park’s herd, Rocky Mountain Arsenal Refuge Manager David Lucas told CBS4. Exchanging animals among smaller herds provides necessary “periodic input” and integration.
“That’s kind of the vision for bison management,” Lucas said. “We don’t have millions of acres for free-ranging bison. It just doesn’t exist. This is the only way we can move forward.”
Preserving the truest genetic form of the animals is the priority.
“The historic bison genome has been in jeopardy because cattle were brought in to make them domesticated,” Lucas said, referring to “beefalo,” the term used to describe animals produced by ranchers’ cross-breeding of bison and beef cattle. “We know where our animals have come from a 100-plus years ago.”
The arsenal’s numbers and bloodlines were reinforced in the past with input from other more genetically ‘pure’ herds (mainly the National Bison Range in Montana, but also Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, and the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in Montana). Now the arsenal’s herd has grown 180 adults and 26 calves, by last count, and its success makes it a prime contributor to the benefit of others.
Lucas said younger animals from the arsenal herd will go to North Dakota because they blend in better socially with the existing herd.
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.
“The arsenal plays an important role, which is exciting for all of us,” Lucas said. “We are happy to support this work.”
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.
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.”
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)