WIND RIVER RESERVATION — Dry weather in Montana finally allowed a Wyoming tribe’s buffalo herd to grow by five bulls Wednesday night.
After spending most of the day in a trailer coming from Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, the buffalo — with the sun nearly below the mountains to their right and about 50 people gathered to watch on their left — left the trailer one at a time after some coaxing to join the Eastern Shoshone’s growing herd at about 9 p.m.
With Wednesday night’s release and the birth of a calf — the fifth this year — earlier this week, 33 genetically pure Yellowstone National Park buffalo now roam 300 acres of protected land on the reservation near Morton, where they spend their days grazing, wallowing and drinking water.
“They don’t have a hard life,” said Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s buffalo representative.
The five new members of the herd were first supposed to arrive this spring and then last Sunday, but poor weather postponed the previously scheduled releases.
The release also marked the first tribe-to-tribe transfer of buffalo as part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program.
“We’ve seen great success in revitalizing buffalo on our lands, and are eager to share that success with the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and others who strive to bring buffalo back to their rightful home in our consciousness and on our landscapes,” Robert Magnan, director of fish and game for the Fort Peck Tribes, said in a news release.
Much of the American West and Plains, including Wyoming, offered suitable habitats for the buffalo before they were essentially exterminated by the late 1800s, leading to the loss of a vital resource for many Plains tribes.
For the Eastern Shoshone, buffalo were used as a source of food, material and for ceremonies, Baldes said, adding that he hopes the herd can help teach younger generations about their identity.
“Most native people know how important this animal was,” he said. “We have to relearn how to incorporate this animal back into our lives.”
Before they were reintroduced on the reservation in 2016, they had been missing for about 130 years.
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The reservation has more than 700,000 acres of suitable land for the tribe’s buffalo, which Baldes previously has said hopefully will number about 1,000 someday.
“If you put buffalo back, they’re going to be fine,” he said Wednesday.
So far, the herd has thrived. Several calves have been born, with only one buffalo death due to malignant catarrhal fever, which is often carried by sheep, Baldes said.
The oldest buffalo in the herd is about 5 years old, he said.
Buffalo — also known as bison — are the largest mammal in North America, according to the National Wildlife Federation. A mature bull can weigh 2,000 pounds and a mature cow about 1,000 pounds.
They can be 6 feet 5 inches tall and more than 12 feet long, according to the wildlife federation.
But despite their large size, buffalo can reach speeds of 40 mph, jump six feet and quickly pivot when faced with a predator.
About 30,000 bison free of cattle genes, including Wind River’s, make up conservation herds on public and private lands in the U.S., according to the wildlife federation.
Baldes said he is hopeful that the herd will continue to grow and occupy more land, pointing out that other wildlife on the reservation, like pronghorn, have successfully recovered after overhunting.
“The same thing can happen with buffalo,” he said. “This is the right thing to do.”