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Alberta wild bison complete historic 650-km journey to ancestral Montana home

"Seeing those buffaloes coming home is a dream unfolding in front of us," says a man from the Montana First Nation that received 87 wild bison that travelled 650 km from east of Edmonton in a historic repopulation effort.

'Seeing those buffaloes coming home is a dream unfolding in front of us,' says Leroy Little Bear

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      A conservation herd of 87 wild bison has safely returned to its ancestral home after a 650-kilometre trek that brought them over the Canada-U.S. border.

      The transfer of bison from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton to Browning, Mont., is part of an effort to repopulate the bison population in that area and reconnect the people there with a part of their culture that has been missing for more than a century.

      "What we're seeing today is, 100 years later, the great, great, great-grandchildren of those wild bison are coming back home," said Marie-Eve Marchand, a coordinator with Wildlife Conservation Society.

      The pure-bred yearlings are descendants of the original bison that once thrived in the plains of Blackfeet territory in Montana, before the animals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th century. 

      The bison explore their new home in Montana on Tuesday morning, after a 650-kilometre trip from Alberta. The pure-bred yearlings are descendants of the original bison that once thrived in the plains of Blackfeet territory in Montana, before the animals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th century. (Bison Belong)

      For Leroy Little Bear of the Blood Tribe, the bison homecoming is a huge step toward cultural preservation. 

      "Our people will be strengthened by this transfer. It means that our culture, our language, our ceremonies, songs and stories, are going to be renewed and reaffirmed," he said.

      "Seeing those buffaloes coming home is a dream unfolding in front of us."

      The bison will be quarantined for 30 days to ensure they are in good health before they will be released to roam free in and around the Buffalo Calf Ranch on the Blackfeet reserve south east of Browning. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      Convoy delayed by loading 

      The travellers planned to set out at the crack of dawn on Monday, but had difficulty loading the bison into their trailers in Elk Island National Park.

      Because of the delayed start, the convoy was in danger of missing the livestock inspection deadline at the U.S. border. 

      Because they were two hours behind schedule, the travellers could not stop as planned in Gleichen, Alta., to be welcomed by a special celebration of singing, feasting, chanting, drumming and praying organized by the Siksika Nation.

      Because it took longer than expected to load the bison at Elk Island National Park, the convoy was running two hours behind schedule and could not stop as planned in Gleichen, Alta., to be welcomed by a special celebration of singing, feasting, chanting, drumming and praying organized by the Siksika Nation. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      Instead, Siksika Coun. Warren Drunkenchief and a number of other Siksika band members raced along to meet the convoy roughly 90 kilometres away at the intersection of Highway 36 and the Trans-Canada Highway, where they were able to toss some food and water to those on board.

      "You have to honour the buffalo," said Drunkenchief. "That's our lives. That's our shelter, our food, and you want to hold on to that."

      The bison waited in their trailers to be inspected by veterinarians at the Alberta-Montana border crossing. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      'This is their home'

      Finally, thanks to border officials kindly extending the hours a bit past their normal closing time, the herd made it to Montana.

      "I'm glad that they're back here, because this is their home," said Iyinakyaa Kii of the Piikani First Nation, who is currently living in Browning and working to help restore the Blackfoot language on the Blackfeet Nation in the United States.

      Iyinakyaa Kii of the Piikani First Nation was happy to see the bison return to Montana, where she is currently living. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

      Kii had little doubt the herd would soon acclimatize itself to its new, southern surroundings.

      "They're going to adapt here," she said, noting bison are natural roamers. "It's not going to take long for them to do that, from way up north, because they're only yearlings."

      "Long ago, they travelled. They didn't just stay in one spot."


      With files from The Homestretch.

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