WIND RIVER RESERVATION — William Roberts stood at the edge of a hill overlooking the Wind River on Sunday morning taking pictures with a cellphone of a handful of buffalo grazing and wallowing in the dirt below.
Roberts, a citizen of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, was among the approximately 50 people gathered on a 300-acre tract of land on the Wind River Reservation to catch glimpses and take pictures of the tribe’s growing buffalo herd. After the birth of four calves this spring, 27 genetically pure descendants of Yellowstone National Park bison now live on the reservation.
“I feel happy about it,” he said while explaining how countless numbers of the animal once would have wandered the area. “This is just the beginning.”
The herd was supposed to grow to 32 on Sunday with the release of five young bulls from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, but heavy rains forced organizers to postpone the move because muddy roads prevented trucks from getting to that reservation’s herd.
But those gathered to see the Wind River Reservation buffalo were still able to observe the herd’s four new calves while watching a drum group that included Roberts singing four songs for the buffalo with the snow-covered peaks of the Wind River Range in the background.
They were joined by five young bull bison who stood just dozens of yards from those gathered around singers and their drum, as if they understood the symbolism of their presence, after meandering up a hillside.
“I thought it was pretty significant that there were five that were here,” said Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s buffalo representative. “That’s the number that was supposed to be here today from Fort Peck.”
Sunday’s release would have been the third release of buffalo on the reservation since they were reintroduced as part of an effort to re-establish a population of the animal, which the Eastern Shoshone and many other tribes consider sacred.
“This animal was life’s commissary to our grandmas and grandpas,” Baldes said. “Our ancestors, they depended very much on this animal.”
Tens of millions of buffalo — named America’s national mammal in 2016 — once wandered the country’s western prairies, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
In the 1700s, more than 30 million bison roamed North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But habitat and overexploitation would nearly lead to their extermination by the 1880s, forcing many indigenous people from their homes and onto reservations because buffalo — a primary source of food and supplies — were nearly wiped out.
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In addition, the once-plentiful buffalo were also used for ceremonies, shelter and tools.
They’re also ecologically important, according to the wildlife federation.
By the time they were reintroduced in 2016, buffalo had been missing from the Wind River Reservation for about 130 years.
For Roberts, re-establishing a herd on the reservation is important for younger generations to understand their culture and heritage.
“This is a sacred animal,” he said. “People are realizing this is something we have to have for future generations.”
Restoring the herd also will help younger generations be proud of their identity, Baldes said.
“It’s a step in a direction to restore ourselves,” he said.
The tribe’s 27 buffalo — 32 in the coming days — are among the approximately 21,000 genetically pure bison roaming national parks, refuges, reservations and other public lands as part of a conservation effort, Baldes said.
A calf was born on the reservation for the first time in more than 130 years in 2017.
Baldes said he expects the five buffalo to arrive from Montana and be released sometime this week.
When that happens, it’ll be the first tribe-to-tribe transfer of buffalo, said Garrit Voggesser, director of tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation.
“Frankly, I think restoration of bison is an environmental justice issue. Bison were basically killed off to reduce the number of Native Americans and confine them to reservations,” he said. “I think it just makes sense for tribes to be the ones that are leading this.”
Baldes said the eventual goal is for 1,000 bison to roam the more than 700,000 acres of suitable habitat on the reservation, with Voggesser adding that the herd could hopefully move on to more than 60,000 acres near their current location within one or two years.
Since buffalo are important to both tribes on the Wind River Reservation, he said he’d also like to see the herd someday be co-managed with the Northern Arapaho Tribe through the reservation’s fish and game department.
“I’ve always seen buffalo … as a way to bring the two tribes together,” he said. “Buffalo used to heal in the past.”
Follow reporter Chris Aadland on Twitter @cjaadland