Elk Island bison calves return to Montana's Blackfoot country

Bison from Elk Island National Park are returning to a range in Montana, where their ancestors once roamed.

90 calves will help rebuild bison population south of the border

Elk Island bison calves return home to Montana's Blackfoot country

6 years ago
Bison calves from Elk Island are part of a conservation effort to repopulate Montana's Blackfoot country. 2:09

Bison from Elk Island National Park are being returned to a range in Montana, where their ancestors once roamed.

In all, 90 bison calves will be relocated south, in an effort to repopulate Blackfeet territory in Browning, MT,  where once thriving populations of bison began disappearing from the landscape in the 19th century when they were hunted to the brink of extinction.

"We're bringing the buffalo back. They've been gone for a long time and the animal means a lot to us culturally and spiritually, " said Ervin Carlson, president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council and the manager of the Blackfeet Nation buffalo program.

"The linnii, the buffalo have taken care of us. In our past, they were our economy, our food, our clothing, our lodges, and also a part of our ceremonies.

"They are a part of us. We have a history together."

The Blackfoot territory was once home to a thriving bison population, but the animals have been absent from the landscape for decades.

The repatriation is part of the Iinnii Initiative, a collaboration between the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Blackfoot Confederacy; a handful of tribes and nations that have committed to restoring bison populations to their traditional lands, on both sides of the border.

"These animals originated here in Blackfeet territory, were captured, and ended up in Elk Island. Now we're returning them, and trying to rebuild that herd," said Carlson, who travelled to Edmonton this week to meet with park officials, and watch as the calves were prepared for transport.

"It's very moving to me, very spiritual."

Today, bison number in the hundreds of thousands across North America, but most reside on private lands as livestock, and conservation herds are rare.

Paulette Fox, an environmental scientist and member of Blood Tribe in Alberta, hopes that returning the bison to their home range will help people reconnect with a part of their culture that has been missing for decades.

"We need that connection, we need that strength, our communities are struggling," said Fox.

"A lot of young people don't even realize how important the buffalo were to us. To have a significant event like this, it will help them to remember."