FORT WASHAKIE — On a cold, crisp October morning more than 100 people — tribal members, school children, members of the press and representatives of the National Wildlife Federation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — witnessed the release of 10 genetically pure bison from National Bison Range in Montana to their new home on the Wind River Reservation.
Jason Baldes, bison representative for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, was operating on three hours of sleep. He’d met the truck at 2 a.m. in the bison pasture the night before. Although this was the second time Baldes organized a bison release on Eastern Shoshone land, his excitement for the moment wasn’t diminished.
“It’s another step for us,” Baldes said. “These 10 are joining 10 others from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa that came to us last year, and then a calf was born in the spring. This is a big day.”
The 10 bison waited in a transport trailer as speakers from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, USFWS and NWF spoke in a short ceremony about the collaboration and years of effort it took to get to this moment.
Arturo Garcia — a Native American Artist from Denver who’d conducted a painting workshop with students at Fort Washakie School the previous day — braved the cold to capture the release on canvas.
With the ceremony complete and the speeches delivered, the crowd gathered by round hay bales. Baldes and four other drummers sang as the trailer door opened and the bison hopped onto the soil of their new range.
“To be able to restore a connection to the buffalo is a way to help heal the past, it’s way to help heal us as native peoples.” Baldes said, “This is just the beginning.”
Two bison from the National Bison Range graze on Eastern Shoshone tribal land the evening of their release. The current bison pasture borders the Wind River. The Wind River Mountains rise to the horizon.
Arturo Garcia, a painter and artist from Denver, began painting bison after witnessing the return of bison to the Wind River Reservation in November 2016. On the Friday before the second release, Garcia spent two hours teaching students from Fort Washakie Elementary School how to draw and paint bison.
After everyone was finished, the students, their teachers and Garcia gathered at the front of the classroom for a group photo. At the count of three, everyone yelled “boy-zshan bi-den,” which means bison return in the Shoshone language.
The bison occupy a 300-acre pasture owned by the Eastern Shoshone Tribe adjacent to the Wind River. The first group of ten bison from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa was released in November of 2016. Tribal members hope to increase the area where the bison can roam and expand the herd to a projected 1,000 animals.
Holding eagle feathers, a tribal member prays and speaks to the bison before official ceremonies begin.
Garcia, bundled against the cold, has a hard time painting but manages to capture the scene in front of him.
Pat Hnilicka, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jason Baldes, Eastern Shoshone bison representative, and Clint Wagon, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council wait for their turn to speak. Hnilicka and the USFWS have been important partners for the tribe. They have worked to remove about a mile of barbed-wire fence that bison could get tangled in. They are also working to restore some irrigated meadows to make them more productive and able to to support more bison.
Garrit Voggesser, national director of National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Lands Partnerships Program, also spoke, describing the long-term collaborative partnership between the Eastern Shoshone and National Wildlife Federation and how it has taken more than 40 years to get hooves on the ground.
Jola LeBeau, Eastern Shoshone, leads a prayer toward the sun during the short ceremony Saturday morning.
Onlookers gather around round bales to watch the bison leave the trailer. Baldes and four other drummers begin to sing and drum to invite the bison to their new home.
The first bison hops out of the trailer.
Baldes sees the restoration of bison as part of the tribes’ long history of conservation. The Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes designated the nation’s first wilderness area on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 1938, more than two decades before the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. In the early 1980s, they enacted hunting regulations to conserve wildlife, leading the recovery of six of the seven big game species native to reservation lands — elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer and white-tailed deer. The bison was the last species needed to complete the circle.
The current bison pasture has room for around 25 buffalo. “Some day they’ll be up there, and over there,” Baldes told WyoFile, pointing to the Wind River Range and the Owl Creek Mountains.
Twenty-one genetically pure bison graze in the setting sun on the day of the release. Baldes expects up to five calves to be born in the spring of 2018 and believes that the reservation has up to a million acres of suitable bison habitat.
After the bison from Montana jumped off the truck, the onlookers left the pasture, allowing them to find their brothers and sisters that had been released the previous year. That evening at sunset the newcomers and last year’s bison could be seen peacefully grazing together in the shadow of the Winds.
Click here for a short film about the introduction of bison to the Wind River Reservation.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, goat and sheep rancher, freelance photographer and writer who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. You can see more of her photos at bonogofsky.smugmug.com. She blogs about politics, ranching, and community at East of Billings.