Buffalo Treaty Convention

Greg Desjarlais, chief of the Frog Lake First Nations in Alberta, signs the Buffalo Treaty at the Buffalo Treaty Convention Monday at Chico Hot Springs.

PRAY — Native American tribes interested in furthering the restoration of bison signed a treaty here on Monday, joining more than two dozen other tribes from the United States and Canada in the agreement.

Called the Buffalo Treaty, the agreement was created in 2014 to recognize and elevate the cultural importance of bison to Native American people and urge the restoration of the animal to 6.3 million acres between the United States and Canada.

Officials from tribes based in Alberta, South Dakota and Wyoming signed onto the agreement Monday at the Buffalo Treaty Convention, which was held at Chico Hot Springs Resort. The additions brought the total number of signatories to more than 30. Several conservation organizations also signed onto the agreement.

Stephanie Adams, of the National Parks Conservation Association, co-hosts of the convention, said the treaty helps the various tribes interested in bison conversation speak with a unified voice.

“The hope is that more tribes can continue to work together collectively to restore bison and conserve bison,” Adams said.

There were once millions of bison roaming North America. They were nearly extirpated with the westward expansion of white people. A few wild bison survived in Yellowstone, and now the herd that lives there is seen as the most significant genetic link to the herds that once roamed the country.

People gathered here for the convention spoke of the deep spiritual connection between Native Americans and bison. A lodge was erected on the lawn outside the hotel, and there were almost too many people for it. There was drumming, singing and a pipe ceremony.

Greg Desjarlais, chief of Frog Lake First Nations in central Alberta, said bison are the key to healing his people and ensuring they survive long into the future. His tribe manages a herd of about 60 bison now, and he was one of the new signatories to the treaty.

“This animal is the grandfather that’s going to carry us where it’s brighter,” Desjarlais said.

The treaty was originally signed by eight tribes in 2014 at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Since then, several additional tribes have joined the agreement and there have been treaty gatherings at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, at Banff National Park in Alberta and at the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Leroy Little Bear, a member of the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, is one of the driving forces behind the treaty. He said it began in part to strengthen the connection between young tribal members and bison, which are connected to many tribal stories and traditions.

He said there has been significant progress on bison restoration since the first signing of the treaty.

“It’s like little Christmas lights,” Little Bear said. “It’s happening in Sioux Country, Cree Country, Blackfeet Country.”

A major player in the future of bison restoration could be Yellowstone National Park’s quarantine program, which seeks to produce brucellosis-free bison that can be used to enhance existing herds or start new ones.

The program had its first direct park-to-tribe transfer earlier this year with the movement of 55 bull bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana. There, the bison will undergo a final round of testing and could then be transferred to other tribes.

The movement of the 55 bulls to Fort Peck this year freed some space at the park’s quarantine corrals near Gardiner, but it’s unclear how many bison Yellowstone officials will enroll in the program when they trap bison this winter.

Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s bison program manager, said there are 24 bison left in quarantine there now — 21 females, 3 males. Quarantine rules require that female bison have calves before they are declared brucellosis free, making the future of those 24 bison more complicated.

In general, Reid said the park wants to have smaller cohorts of bison moving through the quarantine process rather than filling their corrals as much as possible. He also said expansion of the program is going to require other organizations in the region to help.

Fort Peck officials would like to take in more bison but state and federal officials have blocked the tribe from participating in quarantine at an early stage. In the long-run they see the reservation becoming a clearinghouse for brucellosis-free bison — a place other tribes can turn to create their own herds.

To that end, the tribes transferred five bulls to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes on the Wind River Reservation earlier this summer. The bulls joined a herd that was restored to the reservation in 2016 after more than 130 years without bison.

Jason Baldes, Eastern Shoshone Tribal member and the tribe’s buffalo coordinator, signed the treaty here Monday. He said the agreement brings solidarity to the tribes that care about bison, and that preserving the animal into the future will require a mindset change.

“The paradigm we have to go toward is treating these animals with the utmost respect,” Baldes said. “I think we have to begin thinking about these animals as wildlife.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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