Pablo’s Great Buffalo Shipments to Canada

Pablo’s Great Buffalo Shipments to Canada

In 1907 the Michel Pablo herd from western Montana began arriving in Canada. At their end of the railroad, Canadians cheered the buffalo’s arrival.

They knew they had scored a coup in getting “the finest buffalo herd in America,” as William Hornaday, president of the new American Bison Society, called Michal Pablo’s half-wild herd from Montana.

Pablo’s buffalo arrived in Canada, weary from riding 3 days, 1,200 miles, in special boxcars switched over five railway lines. The Canadians assured Pablo they would buy his entire herd—bulls, cows and even newborn calves—at his price of $200, in addition to shipping charges of about $45.

The first two shipments in 1907 made it in good shape. Such a long shipment of a herd that large had never been attempted before.

Pablo initially estimated that he owned about 400 bison, but as it turned out he had over 700. It was not easy to get them loaded on the train, however. What he thought would be a roundup lasting one summer or two, stretched out for five years.

The Canadians must have watched anxiously as Americans in the US, chagrinned at their loss, began offering higher payments for what was left, even to a reported $700 per animal.

Their contract called for Pablo to deliver the buffalo to the railhead at Ravalli, Montana, where they could be loaded on railway cars and shipped to Canadian destinations. It was a 3-day train ride of 1,200 miles, travelling over five different railway lines.

Because it took so long to load the buffalo, some stood in railway cars on the siding for up to 14 days before all the cars could get loaded.

Pablo received an initial down payment of $10,000 from Canada and began planning a 2-year roundup and shipments for 1907-1908. He was deemed a very wealthy man by his Native friends, but his expenses in getting the buffalo to and into the railroad cars turned out to be large.

Michel Pablo’s first shipments in 1907 to Canada looked pretty good, and even by the 4th of July in 1909 the Daily Missoulian in Missoula, MT, could report:

“With the shipment Wednesday of nearly 200 buffalo from Ravalli, Montana, to Canada,
all but the outlaw remnant of the largest herd of wild bison in the United States were removed from their native heath to the limited confines of a foreign park.”

Pablo had at first considered driving his buffalo herd north across the border with the cowboys he hired, but chasing them the 50 miles to the train station in Ravalli proved how impossible this could be.

Unloading at Elk Island Park

In Canada, Pablo’s buffalo were supposed to be unloaded at Wainwright, Alberta, where land was set aside for a new national bison park. But Pablo’s first shipment arrived before its buildings and fences were ready.

Luckily, Elk Island Park was conveniently located near a railroad station, a short distance east of Edmonton. Built as an elk preserve as its name suggests, it was entirely surrounded by sturdy 10-foot fences.

Pablo’s first 400 buffalo were unloaded at Elk Island Park, just east of Edmonton, in 1907.

By the end of 1907 Elk Island was stocked with 400 buffalo, 175 elk, 75 moose and 80 deer, according to its first Game Warden Victor Hiscock.

Hiscock sketched a map of Elk Island Park—the first destination for Pablo’s buffalo.

As seen in this map, signed by Hiscock in 1907, the Canadian National Railway swung a quarter circle to the Lamont Station, seen at the top right, following the Saskatchewan River from Edmonton, at the lower left.

This is Game Warden Victor Hiscock’s map of the first destination for Pablo’s buffalo at Elk Island Park. They were unloaded at Lamont Station and trailed 4½ miles into the Park.

At Lamont Station the buffalo were unloaded and trailed 4 ½ miles along a temporary fence. Most likely, this was built as a temporary trail fenced on both sides, bringing the wild herds running across the river and through a gate into Elk Island Park.

On the map Elk Island Park appears to be 16 square miles, 4 miles on each side, surrounded by 10-foot fences. Since Hiscock noted the size at approximately 30 square miles, the park probably included hay meadows, where 400 tons of hay were stacked for winter feed for the elk and buffalo.

In addition to the lake containing small islands—hence the name Elk Island—the park area included a warden’s house and what was identified as Fort Sask (Ft. Saskatchewan).

Within this area Hiscock listed 400 buffalo, 175 elk, 75 moose and 80 deer. In addition, he noted there were musquask (muskrats?), a few beaver, skunk, weasel and coyotes, which “roam at leisure.”

It was a perfect halfway station for Pablo’s buffalo.

Canadians Praise Pablo—Man of ‘Sterling Integrity’

In Canada, Michel Pablo was praised as a man of “sterling integrity” who kept his promises.

He received offers from individuals in the United States to sell his remaining bison at even higher prices than agreed-upon with Canada. But Pablo remained steadfast in his agreement with the Canadians.

One D.J. Benham, a journalist for the Edmonton Bulletin in Canada, wrote in Nov 8, 1907:

“When the sale to a foreign country was positively confirmed it aroused a storm of opposition and criticism, especially in Montana, where it was looked upon as a distinct national loss.

“Offers of double and nearly treble the price Canada was paying were officially made to Mr. Pablo, presumably with the hope that the great monetary consideration of nearly a quarter of a million dollars might be an inducement sufficiently alluring to cause him to break his bargain. . .

“[But] Mr. Pablo. . . is a gentleman of sterling integrity, one whose word is bond. It stands greatly to his credit that all the alluring offers for his buffalo, even one of $700 a head, were quietly refused on the ground that a bargain is a bargain and as such is sacred.

“He belongs to the ranching period and is a striking example of what a man of determination may accomplish in achieving success in the face of adverse circumstances sufficient to discourage the majority.

“Of magnificent physique bred by a strenuous life in the open, tall and still erect he carries his 68 years so lightly that he might easily be mistaken for a man of 50.

Michel Pablo surveying his herd of buffalo on his Montana ranch. The Canadian press praised Pablo as a leader and man of honor. A man of “magnificent physique bred by a strenuous life in the open, tall and still erect he carries his 68 years so lightly that he might easily be mistaken for a man of 50.”

“Quiet determination is stamped on his features, while his other dominant characteristics would single him out as a leader in any community. He had resolutely made up his mind that Canada . . . should reap the reward of enterprise and straightforward dealing.

“Among those who know him best Mr. Pablo is regarded as the soul of honour and he enjoys their esteem accordingly.”

‘The finest herd of American Bison in the world’

William Hornaday, president of the newly formed American Bison Society, wrote his congratulations to the Canadians in that organization’s annual report:

“The most important event of 1907 in the life history of the American Bison was the action of the Canadian Government in purchasing the entire Pablo-Allard herd of 628 animals, and transporting 398 of them to Elk Island Park, Canada.

“A fine pair in the world’s finest herd,” photographer NA Foster titled this photo of Pablo’s buffalo in Montana, with the snow-capped Mission Mountains in the background. Montana Historical Society.

“Of the 240 Bison still remaining on the Flathead range, all save 10 head belong to Canada, and will be removed during 1908.

“Inasmuch as it was impossible to induce the United States Government to purchase the Pablo-Allard herd, and forever maintain it on the Flathead Reservation, the next best thing was that it should pass into the hands of the Canadian Government, and be located on the upper half of the former range of the species.

The Canadian Government deserves to be sincerely congratulated upon its wisdom, its foresight and its genuine enterprise in providing $157,000 for the purchase of the Pablo herd, in addition to the cost of transporting the animals, and fencing Elk Island Park.

“It is for the Canadians to write the full history of this important transaction, and record the names of the men who are entitled to the credit for the grand coup by which Canada secured for her people the finest herd of American Bison in the world.

“The friends of the Bison may indeed be thankful that the great northwestern herd is not to be scattered to the ends of the earth, and finally disappear in the unstable hands of private individuals.

“The Pablo herd should not have been permitted to leave the country. . . But Pablo cannot be blamed for the sale. The expense to Pablo has been great.

“The reservation is soon to be thrown open, his range will be gone, and so large a herd cannot be maintained without a large and free range. It is said on excellent authority he would prefer to have them kept in America, but saw no opportunity to sell to the Government.”

When the decision was finally made by the US Congress to establish a National Bison Range in the Flathead Valley, under the continual urging of the newly formed American Bison Society and its members, Hornaday made this comment.

“The cost of the [Flathead] range will not be as great as the loss to the nation of the herd that has been sold.

“If the money that should have been put into the herd is now in part put into this range, and in part into animals, in a few years the increment will be such as to make a herd of which the nation may be proud.”

Origins of Pablo’s Buffalo

Although Canada’s first public buffalo herd was the small exhibition herd in Banff originating with James McKay, the bulk of the plains bison in Canada today came not from Banff, but from a single source: the Pablo-Allard herd.

Pablo’s buffalo were a grand genetic mix of buffalo that originated from calves captured in both Canada and the United States, by Sam Walking Coyote, James McKay, Charles Goodnight and Buffalo Jones, as far distant as Saskatchewan, Montana, Kansas and Texas.

While Jones had captured some bison in Kansas and Texas, some of his bison were purchased from Samuel Bedson, and had been captured by James McKay in Saskatchewan.

With such different places of origin, the herd held by Pablo and Allard had genetic stock from across North America. These bison were kept cattle-gene free because the cattle-buffalo hybrids Pablo and Allard purchased from Jones, it was said, “were never allowed to mix with the thoroughbreds on the range, but were collected and sequestrated on Horse Island in the Flathead Lake.”

Pablo’s buffalo brought a grand genetic mix of buffalo that originated from calves captured in both Canada and the United States, from Saskatchewan, Montana, Kansas and Texas. Photographer Steve Edgerton, Parks Canada.

The herd’s origins with Sam Walking Coyote may have been small, but the plains bison gathered by Pablo and Allard were genetically diverse and all multiplied greatly.

15 Boxcars of Buffalo Arrive in July 1909

In Pablo’s third shipment in July 1909, 15 boxcars arrived in Canada loaded with 190 head of buffalo.

The Wainwright Star, Wainwright, Alberta, reported the welcome arrival of this impressive shipment on that day.

Unloading buffalo at the train station in Wainwright. Buffalo Trails and Tales, Wainwright and Districts.

“On Saturday last, 15 cars of buffalo arrived here from the Pablo herd in Montana, and were immediately unloaded in the Buffalo Park.

“The bunch consisted of 190 head and at times what seemed almost insurmountable obstacles have been overcome in rounding up this bunch.”

The July 1909 shipment unloaded at the new Buffalo National Park created near the town of Wainwright in east central Alberta on June 5, 1909.

Commissioner of Dominion Parks Howard Douglas, Montana Immigration Agent A. Ayotte, and H. C. McMullan, C. P. R. livestock agent, Calgary, accompanied the shipment.

“The animals comprising this shipment were immediately unloaded and despite expectations did not take unkindly to the fence around the corral at the unloading place.

“They had been in the cars for periods varying from 4 to 14 days and were consequently quite weary. The railway journey from Ravalli was made in the fine time of 72 hours and the bison stood the journey fairly well,” according to The Wainwright Star.

“No time was lost in releasing the buffalo, and before dark the entire trainload was quietly grazing in the park.

Superintendent Ellis and his assistant, Louie Bioletti, gave every assistance to the party and we were enabled to see the buffalo at ease in their new home.

“They were scattered here and there in small herds, while an occasional one would be found enjoying a dust bath in one of the innumerable buffalo wallows, which were made by the wild herds many years ago.

“They seemed to take well to their new home and the majority paid scant attention to visitors.

They had been shut up in railway cars up to 14 days and were “weary,” but took well to their new home at Wainwright and paid scant attention to visitors.

“Occasionally, we ran across a small herd which viewed us with suspicion and started pawing the ground. When their tails began to raise with an ugly looking crook, we considered discretion to be the better part of valor and immediately left for other sections of the park.

“The 508 buffalo now in the park have an ideal home.” The Wainwright Star. Wainwright, Alberta, July 9, 1909.

Shipping ‘the Outlaw Remnant’

What was termed “the outlaw remnant” was still to be captured and shipped.

“There are still at least 150 head on the Flathead Reserve, which will be shipped in September. Before these arrive, however, 75 buffalo will be sent to the Park here from the Banff herd.”

In fact, after the July 1909 shipment the last 100 or so renegade buffalo arrived much more slowly than that, only a few at a time.

The renegade bulls were captured and shipped a few at a time.

The first three train shipments, two in 1907 and one in 1909, had brought 600 head to Elk Island.

Both Plains and Wood buffalo live in Elk Island National Park. Here two bulls spar off in testing their strength and resolve against each other. Parks Canada.

But after that the Canadian shipments dwindled fast, according to the American Bison Society’s annual report of March 31, 1913:

* 1st and 2nd shipments in 1907 – 410 head

* 3rd shipment July 1909 –190 head

* 4th shipment in October 1909 – 28 head

* 5th shipment June 1910 – 38 head

* 6th shipment October 1910 – 28 head

* 7th shipment May 2011 – 7 head

* 8th shipment – June 2012 – 7 head

Total from Michel Pablo was 708, according to that report.

Identified in the final shipment of 7 head were 1 two-year old bull, 3 cows, 2 yearling heifers and 1 calf.

“These animals were all in good condition on arrival,” reported Hornaday.

“It has been found necessary to slaughter some of the fierce old bulls which had been injured while fighting,” he added. “and the balance of these aged animals will later be transferred from their respective parks to Banff, where they will doubtless be a great attraction to tourists and others.”

After 1909, when the fences were completed, Pablo’s buffalo were shipped directly to the new Buffalo National Park near Wainwright.

Hornaday’s report lists the total buffalo at three Canadian National Parks—Elk Island, Wainwright and Banff–as 1,287 head by the end of 1913.

“The number of males is approximately the same as the number of females, and a large number of the former are aged. The total number of calves successfully raised during the year is 221.

“Several applications from city parks for live buffalo have been lately received and are under consideration, and one cow buffalo has been loaned to the City of Vancouver, BC, during the past season.”

That “outlaw remnant” proved toughest of all to get loaded on rail cars.

An impassioned and sympathetic journalist in Missoula, FL Baghy, described their capture.

“Trapped into manmade corrals, roped and loaded into cages, bound down with chains and wire, hauled over long and rough roads, then dragged by main force Into freight cars and shipped like so many common cattle over the rail roads, nearly 600 of these lords of the plains have been dragged from the free and untrammeled range of their nativity into a national playground, where they will be kept as noble specimens of a rapidly vanishing species of American big game,”

“And when the 150 head that remain upon the reservation are rounded up and shipped this fall, there will be none of the noble animals left to dispute the right of the white man’s stock to- every blade of grass on the range where once the buffalo was lord of all he surveyed.”

But it was not that easy. These were wild bison. The 150 were the wiliest and most troublesome of wild buffalo. They had escaped many times from the skilled cowboys Pablo hired.

Reporters observed that many horses were killed and many cowboys injured. Finally fences 26 miles long, converging to the corrals at Ravalli, Montana, were built, and the wildest and fiercest of all bison were gradually brought together in small bands.

Often when they found themselves being driven from their native hideouts, they turned on the cowboys.

Exhibition Herd Maintained at Elk Island

The bison were only supposed to be at Elk Island Park temporarily but they quickly became a main attraction. The park was just east of Edmonton on the open Plains.

From the time of their arrival, they caused a sensation among local people and visitors from across Canada. There’d been no buffalo in the Edmonton area for more than 30 years and thousands of people marveled at these “Majestic Monarchs of the Plains.”

In 1909 the fences of the new Buffalo National Park near Wainwright were completed, so the bison at Elk Island were rounded up and shipped to the new park.

But the Minister of the Interior, Edmontonian Frank Oliver, ordered a small exhibition herd left behind.

Lone bull grazes at Elk Island National Park. Parks Canada.

It was the 40 to 70 who evaded capture that formed the nucleus of the bison at Elk Island today—a herd that would grow over the years and see individuals sent to support numerous conservation herds around the world.

It is a good thing, say Park managers today, that these bison remained at Elk Island, because things did not go well for Buffalo National Park at Wainwright.

A Tough Workout for Buffalo Wranglers

For the second roundup in November that fall, the Canadian press—waiting in the wings—had this to say:

“The drives . . . were as spectacular as anything ever seen on the range.

“The battle grounds were in the bad lands of Pend d’Oreille and in the foothills of the mountains, where every man took his life in his hands in the dare-devil dashes hither and thither, through cuts and ravines, over ridges and foothills or down the valleys honeycombed by the dry courses of the mountain torrents, in fast and furious pursuit of the bands of buffalo. . .”

“Sometimes the cowboys were the pursuers and sometimes they were pursued.

“In cases where their anxiety to turn an animal carried them closer to the buffalo than discretion should warrant, a vicious charge would result, and the rider would have to extend his horse to the limit to escape from the horns of the furious monster.”

The Winnipeg Tribune, Dec 22, 1922, commented on the last shipment (which netted only 7 head):

In capturing the last “outlaw remnant,” the Canadian Press noted, “Sometimes the cowboys were the pursuers and sometimes they were pursued.” Photo by Steve Edgerton, Parks Canada.

“Only three times in six weeks of daily drives did the cowboys succeed in getting any of the buffalo into the corrals.

“The buffalo, when they found themselves being driven from their native pastures, turned on the cowboys. Many horses were killed and many cowboys injured.

“Finally fences 26 miles long, converging to the corrals at Ravalli, were built and the buffalo were gradually brought together.

Making a Last Fierce Struggle for Freedom. Often when a buffalo went down in the chute, he simply gave up and died. Courtesy Montana Historical Society.

“From Ravalli they traveled by railway to the reserve provided for them near Wainwright, where they have increased and multiplied, until they now number some 7,000.”

Montana’s Daily Missoulian had explained the difficulties of Pablo’s first roundup on May 29, 1907. The reporter warned, “To get a good idea of the difficulties that attend this work, take the most ornery range steer, multiply his meanness by 10, his stubbornness by 15, his strength by 40, his endurance by 50 and then add the products. You will then have some conception of the patience and skill that are required to load buffalo into a stock car.”

The total of 708 head in the American Bison Society count were far more than the Canadian Government thought they were going to receive. Some were young calves and apparently, each animal was counted separately and paid for in full regardless of age, including newborn calves, so the numbers kept changing in various reports.

According to the modern Canadian scientist Valerius Geist, during the 6 years between June 1, 1907 and June 6, 1912, Pablo delivered to Canadian authorities 716 bison. Of these, 631 went to Buffalo National Park and the other 85, to Elk Island National Park.

They were healthy and fertile, continually multiplying. The Canadian information written in the American Bison Society annual report indicated there were about 1,006 buffalo in National Parks distributed as follows: 27 head in Banff, 61 at Elk Island Park and 918 in Buffalo Park.

By 1919 between the three sites—Buffalo Park, Elk Island, and Banff—Canada’s National Park system owned 4,033 bison, in both the Plains and Wood buffalo subspecies.

Canadian rangers did a great deal of shifting these buffalo around as the years went by, and the prolific herds doubled and redoubled their numbers everywhere they were placed.

Corrals were built near the river to load buffalo onto boats for shipping to their various parks and destinations across Canada. Parks Canada.

For example, in June 1925 some 6,673 plains bison were shipped from Buffalo National Park to Wood Buffalo National Park. This included 4,826 yearlings, 1,515 two-year-olds, and 332 three-year-olds, most of them female.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Pablo’s Great Buffalo Roundup and Grand Shipment – Part 1. Pablo’s Grand Buffalo Roundup

Pablo’s Great Buffalo Roundup and Grand Shipment – Part 1. Pablo’s Grand Buffalo Roundup

When Michel Pablo sold all of his buffalo to the Canadian government, it took 6 years to get them rounded up and loaded. He expected the job to take one summer.

They were wild, and did not take kindly to being chased to the railway station in Ravalli, Montana—or getting loaded into railway cars. Especially the renegade bulls.

Pablo’s buffalo—he thought there were somewhere between 300 and 700 head—were grazing in the Bitterroot Mountain Range and the Lolo National Forest along the Flathead River.

Turned out there were 716 buffalo and it took 6 years before they all reached their destination in Wainwright, Alberta, according to Valerius Guist, Canadian author of Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison.

The first twenty cowboys Pablo hired for the job only succeeded in bringing in a few buffalo at a time, trailing and hazing and running them the 30 to 50 miles to the railroad pens and loading at Ravalli.

Cowboy artist Charlie Russell joined the Pablo crew for roundups in spring 1908 and fall 1909. He called the cowboys “a wild looking bunch that looked good to me.” Michel Pablo is 5th from left in dark shirt and tipped hat. Courtesy Montana Historical Society, NA Forsyth, photographer1869-1949.

In a story captioned, “Loading the Allard buffalo for shipment to the North,” Montana’s Daily Missoulian explained the difficulties of Pablo’s first roundup, on May 29, 1907.

“To get a good idea of the difficulties that attend this work, take the most ornery range steer, multiply his meanness by 10, his stubbornness by 15, his strength by 40, his endurance by 50 and then add the products.

“You will then have some conception of the patience and skill that are required to load buffalo into a stock car,” challenged the news article.

For the second roundup in November that first fall, the Canadian press—waiting in the wings—had this to say:

“The drives . . . were as spectacular as anything ever seen on the range.

“The battle grounds were in the bad lands of Pend d’Oreille and in the foothills of the mountains, where every man took his life in his hands in the dare-devil dashes hither and thither, through cuts and ravines, over ridges and foothills or down the valleys honeycombed by the dry courses of the mountain torrents, in fast and furious pursuit of the bands of buffalo. . .”

“Sometimes the cowboys were the pursuers and sometimes they were pursued.

“In cases where their anxiety to turn an animal carried them closer to the buffalo than discretion should warrant, a vicious charge would result, and the rider would have to extend his horse to the limit to escape from the horns of the furious monster.”1

“The drives were as spectacular as anything ever seen on the range,” reported the Edmonton Bulletin, Nov. 8, 1907. “Every man took his life in his hands in the dare-devil dashes hither and thither, through cuts and ravines, over ridges and foothills.” Montana Historical Society, NA Forsyth.

Origins of Pablo’s buffalo herd

Pablo’s big, healthy, multiplying herd stemmed from the 6 buffalo calves that that Walking Coyote and his Blackfeet wife trailed west across the Continental Divide, through the most difficult trails of the Rocky Mountains that spring of 1873. When too tired to walk, some of the calves were carried on the backs of their pack horses.

For over ten years the small herd wandered the Flathead Reservation unmolested—the pride of the community, many said.

However, neighbors complained about the destruction they caused, breaking down fences, destroying gardens and crops.

When his friends, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, offered to buy them for $2,000, Sam Walking Coyote decided to sell.

Ranchers in the Flathead valley, the two were of mixed blood. Pablo, the son of a Mexican cattle rancher and Piegan Blackfeet woman, born near Fort Benton, Montana, was married to a Native Pend d’Oreille woman, Agathe Finlely, at St. Ignatius Mission, according to Dave Carter, Executive Director of the American Bison Association.

Charles Allard, a neighbor and childhood friend, was born in Salem, Oregon. He had drifted onto the Flathead Reservation in Montana and married a woman of the Jocko Reservation.

The two men partnered to buy Sam Walking Coyote’s herd of 13 fairly-tame buffalo for $154 each in about 1884.

But Sam insisted—he would accept no personal checks. It had to be cash and to him, that meant $2,000 in gold.

Because of their Indian blood, the men and their wives had grazing rights on the Flathead Reservation. They could turn their buffalo herd loose on free range, as Walking Coyote had done.

Pleased with their purchase, they bought 26 more buffalo from Buffalo Jones of Kansas and their healthy herd grew rapidly until it exceeded 300 head.

The Pablo-Allard buffalo herd at home near the Flathead River 1884-1906. Montana Historical Society, NA Forsyth.

Pablo and Allard were generous in butchering a buffalo occasionally to share with neighbors, said Pablo’s son-in-law, Tony Barnaby.

He is quoted in an interview as saying that Pablo and Allard strongly believed that preserving the bison was their duty, privilege and pleasure.

“Pablo did not consider a buffalo as just a great shaggy beast of the plains,” said Barnaby.

“But rather symbolical of the real soul of the Indians’ past—something grand, that with the culture of his own race, had somehow managed to survive the undesirable features in the white man’s system.

“Often he would tell our Indians to butcher a fat buffalo. We all liked and respected Mr. Pablo and no Indian would steal any of his herd.”

Then—at the age of only 43—Allard died unexpectedly in 1896 of a knee injury that did not heal. His half of the herd, 150 head, went into his estate, and were sold, mostly in the area.

Pablo’s 150 head soon doubled again to 300.

Barnaby, described his father-in-law, as “lavishly generous to friend and foe—a lover of both races; fond of all animals.

“With a keen eye to his animals’ welfare, he knew at all times about where his buffaloes were grazing. He soon realized that they were increasing at a rapid rate: and after he returned from each daily ride on the range, he reported, ‘It is well.’”

Pablo learned in 1906 that the Flathead reservation was opening to homesteaders and he would lose his free range.

Buffalo purchase refused by Congress

Pablo immediately wrote forest service personnel asking if they could provide grazing land for his buffalo. But after much waiting for a reply, he gave up.

He then hurried to Washington and offered to sell his 300 buffalo to the U.S. government for $200 each.

View of Pablo’s buffalo on their home range in the Flathead valley. Spurned by US Congress. Montana Historical Society, NA Forsyth.

President Theodore Roosevelt approved the idea, as did Secretary of the Interior L.A. Hitchcock. But when they asked Congress to appropriate money, it was refused.

The US legislators in Congress said the price was too high. Some scoffed that the buffalo were not worth more than $15 each.

Many easterners agreed. The Indianapolis Star took an indignant stand against the purchase:

“Why Boston people should take an interest in the buffalo and why any intelligent persons should care for the preservation of these moth eaten, ungainly beasts, when their room might much better be taken up by modern blooded cattle, beautiful to look at, are conundrums no one answered.”

Barnaby said his father-in-law took the refusal hard, and described Pablo’s tears of disappointment at the news.

“When Pablo heard that our Congress could not be induced to appropriate a purchasing fund, he was moved to manly tears. He knew that free, open range was ending and that beloved herd must go,” said Barnaby.

Canada eager to purchase Plains Buffalo

 Living not far from the Canadian border, Pablo then requested land from the Canadian government to graze his buffalo.

He knew Canadians were upset that all their Plains buffalo had been gone for years. Remaining in the far north were an estimated 200 or so of the elusive Wood Buffalo.

But the Plains Buffalo had vanished entirely from Canada, many slaughtered by the big semi-annual Metis hunts. Only the few Plains bison rescued by Tonka Jim McKay that were being exhibited at Banff National Park remained.

Pablo’s Canadian contact was a Metis man he knew, Canadian emigration agent Alex Alyotte, stationed in Great Falls, MT.

After some quick checking with his superiors, Alyotte found they were eager to buy buffalo. Rather than to provide pasture, they offered to buy his entire herd at his price.

He arranged a deal with Pablo that meant his entire buffalo herd could be preserved in Canada.

The Canadian deal was clinched in three months, when Mr. Douglas, Commissioner of Canadian Parks, offered to take the whole herd, an estimated 600 head, at $200 each, with $120,000 for the whole consignment.

Delighted, Pablo signed the final agreement, which included another $45 per animal for shipping to their new home near Wainwright, Alberta.

He closed the deal in March 1907.

After the deal was made, an embarrassed Congress was shamed by the press for insulting Pablo with their offer of $15 a head.

“We lost a chance at Bison, offered only $15 a head for Animals Worth $200!” accused a headline in the Harrisburg Telegraph, Pennsylvania.2

“Recently the Canadian Government, by a striking coup d’eta, secured the greatest herd of bison in captivity,” declared the Pennsylvania newspaper.

“And by returning them to an immense preserved tract in their native haunts on the plains of the great West have arrested natural extinction with such complete success that within a few years they anticipate possessing a huge herd of these animals.”

“The story of how this deal was consummated,” said a writer in the December Wide World Magazine, and how the United States lost a great opportunity of becoming possessed of one of the finest animal attractions in the world constitute an interesting romance.

“[Pablo] decided to offer the whole stock, just as it was, to the authorities, hurried to Washington and expressed his readiness to sell. The Government offered to relieve him of his stock at $15 per head. Pablo refused hotly and laughed out the parsimonious offer.”

Apparently, when it was too late, some Americans tried to change Pablo’s mind. But he stuck to his end of the bargain, and was praised for it by the Canadian buyers.

Tackling the Buffalo Round-up

Still, problems lay ahead. At first Pablo thought he might trail his buffalo all the way to their Canadian destination. But he quickly learned that his half-wild buffalo did not trail well, even for  short distances.

Their eventual contract called for Pablo to deliver the buffalo to the railhead at Ravalli, Montana, where they could be loaded on railroad cars and shipped to Canadian destinations. The loaded railroad cars would need to be switched onto 5 separate railway lines to reach the Wainwright station in Sascatchewan.

These photos were taken by N.A. Forsyth during Pablo’s Montana roundup. The images are stereographs and produce a 3D effect when viewed through a stereograph reader. Round Up of the 2nd Herd of Pablo’s Buffalo. Montana Historical Society.

Pablo’s buffalo—he thought there were somewhere between 300 and 700 head—were grazing in the Bitterroot Range and the Lolo National Forest along the Flathead River.

The first twenty cowboys he hired only succeeded in bringing in a few buffalo at a time, trailing them the 30 to 50 miles to the railroad pens and loading at Ravalli.

Before bringing in any buffalo, Pablo supervised construction and reinforcement of stout loading facilities at Ravalli. He strengthened corrals, built wings to direct the buffalo toward the chutes, installed water troughs and fortified rail cars with extra timbers. He also had high wagons built to bring in especially difficult bulls.

Michael Pablo, the Buffalo King, riding through his buffalo corral at the railhead in Ravalli. His stout, high corral fence can be seen at center back. On the horizon to the left, the wings stretch away into the distance above the corral, serving to direct the animals in toward the gate. Montana Historical Society

Wagons with high sides were built especially to haul difficult buffalo into Ravalli, one at a time.

The wagons brought the worst outlaws into the corral from their range some 30 or 40 miles away, thus avoiding the difficulty of chasing stubborn bulls that long distance.

View of Michel Pablo on his horse trailed by six wagons loaded with buffalo in wooden crates during the round-up and shipping of his buffalo herd to Canada. Montans Historical Society, NA Forsyth.

Cowboy artist Charlie Russell joined the Pablo crew for spring 1908 and fall 1909 roundups (Zontek) and described Pablo’s cowboys thus:

“The riders were all breeds and [full bloods], a wild looking bunch that looked good to me,” Charlie Russell wrote in a letter to his friend Fiddleback.

In the accompanying watercolor, Charlie painted 9 riders galloping across the Montana prairie, long dark hair flying.

They wore braids, cowboy hats, feathers, vests, long-sleeve shirts and bandanas. They sported western rigs, riding quirts, with colorful saddle blankets and mounted on an assortment of horses.

Russell also wrote of one of their buffalo roundups:

“The first day they got 300 in the whings [wings] but they broke back an all the riders on earth couldent hold them. They only got in with about 120.

“I wish you could have seen them take the river. They hit the water on a ded run . . .

“We all went to bed that night sadisfide with 120 in the trap but woke up with one cow.

”The rest had climed the cliff an got away. The next day they onely got 6, an a snow storm struck us an the round-up was called off till next summer.”  (The Buffalo Book, David A Dary.)

As he often did, Russell illustrated that letter–with a sketch of the wild buffalo taking the river.

In another letter, Charlie wrote,

“These bluffs wre nearly straight up and made a natural fence that would have held any cow on earth and from the looks I’d bet nothing without wings could have made the git away.

“But since I seen where they got out I wouldn’t bet what buffalo can’t do. They had 300 in the wings the first run but when they sighted the fence they split, running in all directions.

“And there ain’t no such thing as lieding a buffalo. He’l go through, under or over you, and a rider that runs in front of a buffalo is a green hand.” (Russell to Fiddleback, Jan 1909)

A New Plan and Pathetic Picture

An article in The Daily Missoulian written by F.L. Baghy explained the difficulties for the buffalo punchers, as well as the desperation of the buffalo and pathetic appearance of those captured.

“This spring it was decided to make no further attempt to drive the animals from Ronan to Ravailli, but to corral them, load them in crates mounted upon wheels and haul them over the mountains to the loading corrals. For this purpose heavy crates were constructed of heavy timber fastened together with steel and wire.

Roundup of some of the last of Pablo’s buffalo. Seven of Pablo’s buffalo wranglers bring in a bunch to load. At right is a convoy of the high wagons that were built especially to haul difficult buffalo into Ravalli, one at a time. Montana Historical Society.

“Through a loading chute the animals were driven into these crates, securely roped in and hauled by means of six and eight-horse teams over the long and dusty journey to Ravalli. Here they were turned out into a series of corrals from which they were driven, one at a time, into the loading chute.

“A noose around each buffalo’s neck and the tugging of a score of men landed the animal in his car, where the struggling beast was held until a partition to separate him from his companions could be firmly put into place.

“The dangers attending the work of handling the buffalo were many and there were numerous narrow escapes from death and injury on the part of riders and loaders.

“Fred Decker had his horse gored under him, and his brother Johnnie Decker, twice had his mount gored and was slightly injured, his life being saved only by the prompt action of Pablo and his brother in firing pistol bullets into the neck of an infuriated beast that was trying to kill man and horse.

“In their maddened struggles against being dragged into captivity 20 of the animals were killed, some of them rushing blindly against the sides of the corrals with such force as to break their necks. One, the patriarch of the herd, fought with a younger bull, then lay down in the loading chute and died.

“It was a pathetic picture to one who stopped to think, as he gazed at the lacerated, bleeding, ragged animals that stood in the corral at Ravalli, gazing longingly through the cracks of the high, strong fences out upon the hills, beyond which lay the wild free range from which they had been dragged in ignominious captivity to be loaded Into cramped stalls of railroad cars, there to be left to vent their fury in vain kicks against the walls of their prisons until steam and steel landed them at their new home.

“Slowness in hauling the bison from the round-up corral necessitated some of the animals standing in the cars for eight days before the last train started for Canada.

“At last all of the shipments save those that were killed and two that escaped were loaded, aboard and the long trip of 1,200 miles to the point of unloading was commenced.

“Canada has secured a bargain in buffalo and the United States has lost an asset which it may never be able to replace.”

Out of 10 bulls, only 3 loaded—4 died

Moving half-wild renegade buffalo bulls proved almost impossible. David Dary describes Pablo’s attempt one day to load ten full-grown bulls in boxcars, using three expert ropers on well trained horses.

Success: loading the last buffalo on the Northern Pacific at Ravalli.

Four of the bulls died from the furious exertion of their resistance during the day’s heat. Three grew sullen, lay down before they reached the rail cars and refused to budge, regardless of how hard they were pulled, pushed and prodded.

Of the ten bulls the cowboys succeeded in loading only three.

Some of Pablo’s outlaw buffalo, Charlie Russell wrote, avoided capture “without fear or respect for horse, man, rope or fence.

“If overtaken and roped, they threw the horse and his rider and went off with the rope.”

Pablo’s last seven buffalo—perhaps the wildest of all—were hauled to the railroad one at a time in special high-sided wagons built to hold one buffalo each.

Pablo planned to sponsor hunts by local people for the outlaw bulls that escaped the roundup.

But Montana’s Attorney General intervened by declaring them safe under Montana law. So instead, poachers took over and quickly dispatched every last one of them.

Next: Part II. Pablo’s Grand Buffalo Shipment to Canada

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Buffalo Hunt: The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Dakota

The Buffalo Hunt: The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Dakota

Guest Blog by Louis Garcia, Tokio, ND

Louis Garcia and his wife Hilda Redfox of Tokio, ND, married for 48 years. Photo courtesy of author.

Louis Garcia, honorary tribal historian for the Spirit Lake Nation, teaches carpentry at the Cankdeska Community College at Fort Totten, ND. He is the author of “Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota,” published by Cankdeska Community College. It is available in the college bookstore and at He writes a column in the Benson Country Farmers Press entitled; A Message From Garcia: The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Nation, and has written about 120 of these feature stories. Garcia is married to Hilda Redfox. A tribal member for 48 years, and 3rd generation Dakota Presbyterian Church Elder, she is employed by the Tribal health Department. They have a son Robert age 44 and a grandson Chandler and live near Tokio, ND on Spirit Lake Reservation.

For the Plains Indian nothing is more exciting and exhilarating than hunting buffalo or more enjoyable than feasting on their flesh.1

To the Plains Indian the buffalo was the source of life; this bovine scientifically called a Bison (Bison bison) provided everything required to exist in a plains environment. Every part of the buffalo was utilized including their excrement which was used for fuel.

The Dakota term for a buffalo hunt is Wanasapi which appears to be contraction of a descriptive name. During the period named Dog Days, before the coming of the horse, when dogs were used as burden carriers, the hunt was more individualized.

Hunters would don a wolf hide and crawl on all fours up to the herd. Buffalo have poor eyesight and depend on their sense of smell. As there were always wolves prowling nearby, the hunters would go unnoticed.2

Larger groups of hunters employed a Park, which was a fenced enclosure or by driving a herd over a precipice called a jump.

With the arrival of the horse circa 16853 and shortly thereafter by the white man, the herds of buffalo began to decline.

The beginning of this decline is attributed to disease4 by some writers (although this was disputed by Theodore Roosevelt5) and later overhunting. Buffalo herds were increasingly harder to find.

The threat from the Canadian Métis from the Winnipeg-Pembina area, who also hunted in large groups; and according to Indian territorial rights were trespassing on Dakota tribal lands.

These mixed race people increased the pressure brought upon the buffalo population.

One of the last of the large buffalo hunts occurred in 1882, the year known as Wableza Lakota ob wanasapi waniyetu, the year Major James McLaughlin went on a buffalo hunt with the Lakota and Nakota.6

Crazy Walking was the hunt leader and Running Antelope the camp crier.7 The location of this hunt was in Adams County, North Dakota along Flat Creek Cannahma Wakpala.8

The plains people were always on the move, when the herds moved they moved.

The Dakota /Lakota would have two large hunts a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. In the spring, the hunt was usually held in April.

Later on the people gathered for their annual tribal Sun Dance Ceremony in late June and then dispersed to gather other sources of food such as berries, nuts, and tubers. Deer, elk hunting, and also fishing supplemented their diet.

In late September they gathered again for the fall hunt. The Dakota / Lakota spring and fall hunts which were termed “running buffalo,” were an elaborate affair full of prayer, ceremony, and symbolism.

During the buffalo hunt and in time of war the large camp came under marshal law.

Louie Garcia in dance regalia. He began Native American dancing as an 11-year-old with the Boy Scouts. Photo courtesy of author.

A prominent family was selected to set up a tent in the Cokayata or center of the camp. It was a great honor for a family to give up their home. This tent became tribal headquarters called a Tiyotipi or Tent of Tents. No menstruating woman could go near this now consecrated council tent.

Each family had a designated camping location with in the circle of tents. If the camp was exceedingly large then the Tiyotipi was made larger by pitching two or three tents together called a Tiyokiheya.

Ten men were selected as leaders of the hunt or times of war named Wicaŝtayataŋpi Honored men. They were chosen by unimus decision as they could have no blemish on their reputation.

They became the Wayacopi or judges. These ten men made sticks about six to eight inches long and a finger in thickness which they gave to each man in the camp.

These Canwayawapi or counting sticks were used to determine the number of men in the camp. Each man painted his stick red with iron oxide if he was without war honors, and black with charcoal if he had war honors.

These counting sticks were later used to keep score in the Moccasin Game, which was played to while away the time waiting for the scouts to return.

The ten Honored Men selected four marshals called Akicita to keep order, selecting one as the leader Akicita Itancan. These men were the enforcers of the orders given by the ten chiefs.

These men wore black stripes on their face to show who they were, distinguishing themselves from the others. They were very strict in carrying out their duties.

Any man disobeying the chief’s orders were Akicita kte or Soldier Killed, meaning the offender was punished by being whipped, his horse or dog killed, bow and arrows or gun stock broken, all depending on the severity of the offence.

Sometimes they even cut up his tent and broke the poles. This action was a double punishment as the lodge was owned by his wife, which would bring down upon him his wife and in-laws wrath. The Akicita even had authority over the Ten Hunt Leaders, all the camp was under their jurisdiction.

A  Eyanpaha or Camp Crier was selected to circuit the camp making known the decisions of the ten chiefs.

Most times the individual selected as Announcer was known by everyone as the best man for the job. Naturally he had to have a strong-loud voice to be heard as he circled the camp repeating the commands.

To act as servants or waiters to the Tiyotipi; two virgin boys were selected called Wayuţaŋpi Touchers, who bring the firewood, cook and serve the food, and perform the sundry of duties required to keep the council tent running smoothly.

Dale Perkins, student in Louie Garcia’s carpentry class at Cankdeska Community College, Fort Totten, ND , shows his handmade project, a 4-drawer chest of drawers. Photo courtesy of author.

The fire in the Council tent was kept continually burning.

Two scouts Tuŋweyapi were now appointed. According to Rev. Riggs one was called Wakcanya or locator, and the other Wayeya One Sent.9

The scouts were selected from the best families, known for their dedication to duty. The relatives of all who were selected gave away to the poor for this great honor.

The two scouts were each given a wolf skin as a badge of office, with great ceremony. The head of the wolf was tied on their heads being secured by a thong around the chin. The wolf’s body hung down their back. The wolf hide was worn so as not to alarm the buffalo if they were detected.

Song of Departure
Eca ozuye kinhan (In war usually)
Tuweniwalakeŝni ca (I will never be seen)
Bliheiçiya waun welo. (I do the best I can).10.

The two scouts scattered out going in separate directions. Sometimes they were out twelve days before they found the herd.

If as it happened on occasion, they found nothing, they sulked back to camp attracting as little attention as possible.

The scouts looked for Tumble Bugs also known as ground beetles whose horns always pointed towards the buffalo. The large grass hopper was also a sign buffalo were near.

As soon as the scouts departed, the camp moved to the next predetermined camp location. As the general direction was known to all, the returning scouts could easily find the camping location.

Justin Azure stores computer equipment and supplies in the bookcase he made in carpentry class at Cankdeska Community College. Photo courtesy of author.

As soon as the scout was sighted in the distance and by his movements indicated that a pteoptya (herd) was sighted, the people became excited. A long stick was planted in front of the Tiyotipi or a pile of buffalo dung.

The camp leader painted himself red all over. Two lines of men assembled in front of the Tiyotipi with the ten chiefs seated within.

All was now ready. As the scout came near he ran in a zigzag pattern, calling out “Co-o, co-o.” He ran between the two lines of men and kicked over the stick or scattered the buffalo dung.

As he arrived at the Tiyotipi whose cover was pulled to the side so all could see inside; the ten seated chiefs raised their open hands and placed their palms on the ground crying hi-hi.

The hunt leader rose and taking his pipe placed a pinch of powdered buffalo dung on top of the tobacco in the pipe bowl. He lit the pipe with a coal from the fire and prayed to the four directions thanking God for the scouts find.

After the pipe was puffed on by the scout it was passed to the other nine hunt chiefs. A second pipe is presented in the same manner as the first.

Being presented with two pipes to smoke was an admonition to the scout to Wowicaķeya, truthfully report his discoveries.

The scout made his report as to the number and location of the herd, with his clenched fist and protruding thumb he pointed to the herd’s direction. This method of pointing with the thumb was the sign for a buffalo in the sign language11.

Based on the information the hunt leaders then had to decide their course of action. If the scout reported only a small herd after days of scouting, they may choose to send the scouts out again12.

After a decision is made the Announcer was instructed to announce to the people that a herd was found and to prepare to move camp as directed.

A typical announcement:
Aķin iyakaŝka (Saddle Bind)
Śiçeca teĥike (Children dear)
Anpetu Hankeya (Half a day)
Ecawaĥan kta ce. (I will kill).13

The camp was in a jovial mood and buffalo hunting songs were heard though out the camp14. Their prayers to God had been answered.

The camp was moved to a great distance from the herd, so as not to alarm them.

The Akicita gathered the hunters, giving them instruction and selecting those who would go with the two designated groups.

The hunters often rode a common horse, but switched to a trained horse used mostly for buffalo hunting. These horses were trained to run next to a fleeing buffalo.

Sometimes women would follow at a distance to assist in the butchering. With the scouts in the lead, the hunters approached in two arcs, one on each side with a gap in the middle, but to the rear down wind from the herd.

The hunt was usually started very early in the morning. Once the hunters were in position, all waited for the signal.

Sometimes a hunter may rush forward in his excitement upon seeing the herd. This action would start the buffalo to stampede before everyone was ready and the success of the hunt would be in jeopardy.

If all was lost, the offender would be whipped, and horse and hunting equipment destroyed right on the spot by the Akicita. Everyone knew the rules, the hunters kept their places until the prearranged signal was given.

At the signal, such as a blanket being waved from a visible location, the two arcs of hunters rushed forward. The hunters were primarily interested in the cows’ pte, especially two-year-olds. They were the easiest to tan into robes and tents.

The bulls Tatanka ran on the outside protecting the cows and calves ptehinzicana.

The weapon of choice is the bow and arrow, but the lance was also employed. Each hunter had identifiable colors and marks on their arrows; it was easily made known who made the kill.

The hunter would ride next to the cow and shoot an arrow behind the shoulder blade into the heart. He then rushed on to the next prey.

This was very dangerous work as the buffalo could turn and gore the horse, unseating the hunter to be injured or trampled to death by the fleeing buffalo.15

Young men who were inexperienced would trail behind killing the strays. Young boys on their first hunt would chase after the calves.

Their first kill was celebrated by the family to honor the young hunter and encourage him for future exploits. This honoring continues today on the reservation with the first deer and first fish celebrations.

Once the buffalo disappeared in the distance, the men began to locate their kills.

One tradition of the men was to remove the liver, squeeze some gall on it and eat it raw.

Old men who were unable to hunt anymore brought up the common horses to transport the hides and meat back to the camp. The hunters usually gave these old men a buffalo or part of one to honor them for their service to the people.

The men proceeded to butcher their kill until their wives could arrive to help.

The buffalo were butchered in a prescribed age-old way, learned from hundreds of years of experience. The method of butchering is described by Heĥakawakita (Looking Elk) from the Standing Rock Reservation.16

As the pack horses began to arrive in camp, the processing of the meat was begun.

The hides were staked out to dry, the meat cut into thin strips called Papa, to be dried for future use.17

Cooking fires were all ablaze for everyone wanted fresh meat.

Fresh meat was brought to the Tiyotipi to feed the ten chiefs. The two boys cooked the meat and served the meat in a special way.

A piece of cooked meat was impaled on a pointed stick and Wiyohnagwicakiya and placed into the mouth of each chief who gave thanks.

Once this ceremony was performed everyone could eat the freshly cooked meat.

Several days were required to process the buffalo. Usually some of the dried meat was deposited into cache pits to be saved for future use.

The tons of fresh meat had been dried, reduced to a trifling of the former weight dubbed Jerky.

Mostly the meat was made into Wasna (Pemmican) by pounding the dried meat into a powder and mixing it with dried Chokecherry, or June berries.

The mixture was then encapsulated in fat rendered from the marrow of the buffalo bones. The meat processed in this manner would last for years.

A number of years ago a cache of meat was discovered in the Pembina Hills and deemed safe to eat after 150 years.

The sacks of pemmican were placed into grass lined, bell shaped cache pits, its location hidden to all but the owner.18, 19, 20

Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota, written by Louis Garcia, was published by Cankdeska Community College. Available from the college bookstore.

Back cover of book Grass Dance of the Spirit Lake Dakota by Louis Garcia. Photos courtesy of author.


Akicita – Policeman, soldier, enforcer, sergeant at arms.

Akicita Itancan – Police Chief (Itancan=leader, captain).

Akicita Kte – Punishment by the police, Soldier Killed (Kte=to kill).

Buffalo Hunt – The last hunt of 1882 (Wableza=Inspector; Lakota= Sioux; Ob=both; Wanasapi=buffalo hunt; Waniyetu=winter time). By winter they are referring to the year in which the event occurred. The hunt actually happened in the summer. 5,000 buffalo were killed.

Cannahma Wakpala – HiddenWood Creek, (Can=wood; Nahma=to hide;  Wakpala=creek in the Lakota dialect). Named Flat Creek  by the railroad because the area is quite flat (Berg). Riviere du Bois Cache of the Métis. The creek is 50 miles long, rising in North Dakota and flowing southeast to join the Grand River a few miles below the junction of the north and south branches in Perkins County, South Dakota.

Canwayawayapi – Counting sticks (Can=wood, stick; Wayawa=to count: Yapi=causative).

Cokayata – The center of the camp circle. (Cokaya=center; [A]ta= at the). Eyanpaha  Announcer, camp crier, speaker (Eyan=speak to; Paha= hill) meaning his voice had to be so loud it would reach the distant hills.

Papa – Dried meat, jerky. In modern times this treat is mixed with sugar.

Park – an enclosure in the shape of a keyhole, two wings allow the buffalo to be driven in and the gate closed. This is the origin of the name Park River, a western tributary of the Red River of the North located in Walsh County, North Dakota.

Ptehinzicana – Buffalo calf (Pte=cow; hin=hair; Zica=yellow like; Na=familiarity). A calf is a buffalo with yellow like hair.  Sometimes pronounced as ptehincana.

Pteoptaye– Buffalo Herd (Pte=cow; Optaye=herd). The general name for buffalo in Indian is a cow—Pte, not as usually stated Tatanka (Ta=ruminating split toe animals; Tanka, =big, large) which means the bull.

Tiyokeheya– Enlargement of the council tent by joining two or three tents together. Ti=tent; [I]yokeheya=add to, an addition)

Tiyotipi – The Council Tent, the dwelling place of the council in the center of the camp circle. The tent of tents. (Ti=house, tent; Yo=in, at, on; Tipi=dwelling).

Tuŋweyapi – Scouts, spies (Tuŋweya=scout; Pi=plural).

Wakcanyan – Locator, Reporter.

Wanasapi – Buffalo Hunting (Wanasa=buffalo hunt [probably a contraction]; Pi=plural).

Wasna – Powdered meat, fruit and grease mixed together, commonly referred to as Pemmican.

Wayacopi – Judges (Wa=noun marker; yaco=to judge; Pi=plural).

Wayeya – Hunt, seeker.

Wayutaŋpi  – Waiter, food touchers (Wa=noun marker; Yutaŋ=to   touch; Pi=plural) two virgin boys.

Wicaŝtayataŋpi – Hunt and war chiefs, ten men were selected (Wicaŝta=  man; Yataŋ=to praise; Pi=plural. There was no one who was the chief of the tribe. This change in government came  during the treaty making era with the United States  government.

Wiyohnagwicakiya – Put food into the mouth. (W[o]=abstraction; I=mouth; Yo =in, at, on; Hnag [contraction of hnake] to place; Wica=  them; Kiya=causative).Wowicaķeya = Truthfully, factually.


1.Deloria, Vine Junior . Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers 1999, p115.

2.Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. Volume One. New York: Dover Publications 1973, Plate 110.

3.Cowdrey, Mike; Martin, Ned and Jody. Horses, Bridles of the American Indian.  Nicasio, CA: Hawk Hill Press 2012, 14-15.

4.Koucky, Rudolph W. M.D. The Buffalo Disaster of 1882. North Dakota History 50 (1) 1983: 23-30

5.Berg, Francie M. Buffalo Heartbeats Across the Plains. Dakota Buttes Visitors Council, Hettinger, ND 2018, 68. When homesteader RM Bunn wrote of his disease theory, upon finding a cluster of old whitened buffalo bones, President TR Roosevelt wrote to him: “I am very sorry not to agree with your reasoning. I was an eye-witness to the extermination of the buffalo. It was due to the number of hunters—partly by red men but chiefly by the whites. Nothing else was any real factor. The man with the rifle was the sole, appreciable, active factor.”

6.Berg. Buffalo Heartbeats, 2028, 55. The last 1,200 wild buffalo were slaughtered Oct. 12 and 13, 1883, by Sitting Bull and his band on the Great Sioux Reservation in what is now South Dakota, according to William Hornaday in his 1889 book The Exterimination of the American Bison.

7.Densmore, Frances. Teton Sioux Music Bulletin 61. Smithsonian Institute, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Printing Office 1918: 436-447.

8.Berg. Buffalo Heartbeats, 2018, 10-25. The Great Hiddenwood Hunt. Also personal communication, 2005.

9.Riggs, Stephen R. Dakota Grammar, Texts, and Ethnography. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc 1973: 200-202.

10.Densmore, 108.

11.Clark, W. P. The Indian Sign Language. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1982:83.

12.Densmore, 441.

13. Riggs, 202.

14.Densmore, 440-442.

15.Catlin 26, Plate 9; 254, Plate111.

16.Densmore, 443-444.

17.Laubin, Reginald, Laubin, Gladys. The Indian Tipi: its History, Construction, and Use. Norman; University of Oklahoma Press 1977: 150.

18. Gilman, Carolyn, Mary Jane Schneider. The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian            Family 1840-1920. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press 1987: 19, 22.

19. Koucky. Old Names for Buffalo Meat, North Dakota History 50 (4) 1983: 16, 17.

20.Wilson, Gilbert L. Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation. St. Paul:  Minnesota Historical Society Press 1987. Lowie, Robert H. Dance Associations of the Eastern Dakota. New York: American Museum of Natural History 1913: 132-137.  McLaughlin, James. My friend the Indian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company 1926: 97-116. Olden, Sarah Emilia. The People of Tipi Sapa: The Dakotas. Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co. 1918: 97-104. Standing Bear, Luther. My People the Sioux. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1975: 49-66. Land of the Spotted Eagle. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1978: 76-78.

Louis Garcia

Guest Blog from Tokio, ND

American Serengeti—What is going on in Montana?

American Serengeti—What is going on in Montana?

Blue areas depict lands purchased and leased by the American Prairie Reserve in the last 19 years. The APR plan is to connect them with Federal lands including the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge (dark green) and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (light green) and other state and federal and perhaps Indian lands. APR Map.

In northcentral Montana an enormous wildlife project is taking shape in a bold new way that is shaking the foundations of community development and progress—to bring about what has been called the American Seringetti.

The American Prairie Reserve—APR, or simply the Prairie Reserve–on the upper Missouri River is an ambitious plan to develop just such a place as that vast and unspoiled Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, which still experiences the last of the world’s great wildlife migrations.

This Prairie Reserve would be the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. It aims to turn back the clock and restore the wildlife that roamed here two centuries ago. All the large predators: grizzly bears, packs of wolves, mountain lions will be here—along with great herds of wild buffalo.

This Montana area was discovered in 2000 by a group of environmentalists who proclaimed it critical for preserving grassland biodiversity.

 “One of the largest intact landscapes in the Great Plains,” they said. “A top priority” and “pristine grasslands.”

 One year later, a member of that group, a biologist named Curt Freese, teamed up with a Montana native named Sean Gerrity and together they formed the American Prairie Reserve (APR). Gerrity, a former Silicon Valley consultant, says the idea was to “move fast and be nimble,” in the manner of high-tech start-ups.

 They would remove the hundreds of thousands of cattle grazing the land, stock it with 10,000 buffalo, tear out divider fences, restore native vegetation, and create conditions whereby the missing wildlife would return and thrive in a natural setting.

Buffalo on the move. The American Prairie Reserve plan is to replace cattle on their land purchases—and adjoining lands—with 10,000 free-roaming buffalo. Painting by CM Russell.

 They began raising private donations with the goal of bringing together 3.2 million acres, or 5,000 square miles, of mixed private and public grassland along the Missouri River, acquiring ranches at what they said were market prices.

 Think Big

 In the 19 years since that time, the Prairie Reserve group has raised $160 million in private donations, nearly all of it from out-of-state high-tech and business entrepreneurs across the U.S. and beyond.

 They have acquired 30 properties, totaling 104,000 acres. To this they added about three times that—more than 300,000 acres—in grazing leases on adjacent federal and state land. This is what owners do when they purchase land with grazing rights.

 These environmentalists are claiming lands in a unique and ambitious way. They are buying up the private ranches one by one, adding each to large tracts of federal and state land along the upper Missouri river, and then working to set aside all these lands in ways that can be difficult to ever reverse.

Others have long purchased lands for conservation, such as The Nature Conservancy, but none have done it in the large-scale they propose, and few have had the ambition, as the Prairie Reserve does, says National Geographic, of retaining ownership and management authority of that land and adjoining publicly owned lands.

Best of all, in the view of the new Prairie Reserve, enormous pieces of federal and state land span the area. Linking them together with available private lands makes sense, particularly with the possibility of controlling all of it into the distant future.

The ranches purchased are all strategically located near two federally protected areas: the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, according to National Geographic (Feb.2020, p69-89), which partners with Prairie Reserve in the Last Wild Places initiative. Other Federal and State lands intersect as well.

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument cuts through an awe-inspiring stretch of scenic rugged country, planned to be part of Prairie Reserve’s set-aside refuge, but disputed by local ranchers. National Conservation Lands map.

Even a nearby Indian Reservation, Ft. Belknap with tribal bison, has joined the Prairie Reserve in talks about letting their buffalo roam free in the area, an idea that has great appeal for Native Americans with their buffalo-hunting heritage and culture.

At a powwow, Kenneth Tuffy Helgeson, a member of the Nakoda Tribe, said the reserve’s goal of bringing back thousands of wild bison to the plains will help restore a crucial part of his tribe’s culture. The animals were nearly eradicated from the prairies by white settlers.

“It’s a reminder of days past,” says George Horse Capture Jr., a member of the Aaniiih Tribe. “It’s hard to put into words. To me they are a symbol of strength, endurance and the failure—the absolute failure—to go the way of the dodo bird. They were teetering, but now they’re back.”

Tribes and others are given regulated opportunities to hunt American Prairie’s bison.

Grassland biodiversity requires abundance, Freese says. “You’ve got to think big.”

Think of the refuge and monument as the trunk of a tree, Gerrity adds.

“In buying nearby properties we’re trying to expand the girth of the tree,” adding branches to the trunk and bringing about easy movement of wildlife between river systems and grasslands.

Beauty of the Land

Sean Gerrity, founding co-father, stands on one of the vast ranching properties his Prairie Reserve recently purchased. It looks like a miniature Grand Canyon—a panorama of deep, white canyons cut through by a wide, winding river.

“What you’re seeing here is the incredible beauty of the Missouri River out in front of us,” he declares. “Those beautiful cliffs and the raking light coming across in the afternoon.”

His goal is to “rewild” this swath of the Great Plains and return all the species that once lived here, before white settlers arrived. Wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions and 10,000 wild bison.

Gerrity points down to the valley below. “Over here would be some elk,” he says. “Over here bison. On the riverbanks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud there.”

The Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument spans 149 miles of the Upper Missouri River. Cutting through rugged badlands, it is little changed in over 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark travelled through on their epic journey of exploration. Photo by

These animals can be seen in Yellowstone Park. But the APR goes it even better. A new kind of national park that is free to the public and privately funded through both small donors and some of the wealthiest people in the world.

For Gerrity, who moved back home to Montana from Silicon Valley, where he ran a firm that consulted for companies such as AT&T and Apple, the project promised a different kind of long-term investment.

“To work on something—pour your heart into it—and arrange it like a giant work of art and the public would by and large appreciate and realize it would last far, far beyond my lifetime? That just seemed like a dream come true,” Gerrity says.

This is one of only a few intact grassland ecosystems in the world, he says, and he wants to fully restore it before it disappears.

“This wildlife habitat is going away and there is almost none left,” he warns. “This is the last bit in the great plains, for the most part, where we can do a project of this size.”

Trying to be Good Neighbors

Multimillion-dollar donations have poured in from heirs to the Mars Candy Company—Forrest Mars, Jr. and John Mars— a German billionaire, Hansjoerg Wyss, Susan Packard Orr, and top executives in the finance industry. Current board members, Erivan and Helga Haub, Gib and Susan Myers and George and Susan Matelich, are also major donors.

Even though the money comes almost entirely from out-of-state, the staff of American Prairie Reserve, experienced negotiators, have tried to be good neighbors. They made all the right moves in their goal of bringing together this huge plot of lands along the Missouri river.

They established a firm Montana base, placing what they call their national headquarters in Bozeman, Montana. They hired as many employees and staff with a Montana connection as they could.

They encourage hunting, fishing and other recreation on the Prairie Reserve—all of which appeals to Montanans.

They’ve donated beef and bison to local Native American food banks, sponsored rodeo athletes, and donated buffalo-hunting events for local fund-raisers, according to National Geographic, which assisted by sponsoring a “Living with Wildlife” conference for ranching neighbors, who are concerned about the arrival of more predators on the prairies.

Importance of Collaboration

The APR staff talk reassuringly of their desire—and in fact, need—to collaborate with local communities and ranchers.

Their website praises teamwork. “When appropriate and when it will lead to smoother, faster and better execution, we act collaboratively to accomplish results. We proactively contribute, and act, on ideas to improve cross team collaboration and enthusiastically support the efforts of others to do the same.

“We work to understand the goals of others, and effectively communicate our own, and make consistent efforts to help each other achieve them.”

Conner Murnion bails off a bronc at the Milk River Challenge Open Rodeo during the Phillips County Fair. Photo by Pierre Bibbs, Phillips County News

Both the Bureau of Land Management and Montana Parks, Fish and Wildlife seem ready to support the APR request for a change in rules for leases, which would enable bison to displace cattle.

Montana PFW Director Martha Williams, stresses the word collaboration, too, while supporting APR in its desire for bison to be classed as wildlife. She sees the plan to change the status of bison from livestock to wildlife as an opportunity.

“Wild bison have been successfully restored under a variety of management regimes and in a wide range of ecosystems,” Williams said in a press release. “But in order for a proposal to proceed in Montana, it must be devised collaboratively, taking into account the concerns of landowners and communities small and large, and it should follow the model of other successful wildlife restoration efforts.”

Tom France, Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation assures people that the APR group has local support. “The fact is, an overwhelming majority of Montanans support restoration,” he says.

On their website Prairie Reserve emphasizes the value of teamwork and collaborating with others.

Yet APR is very clear in its goals. They are out in plain sight: “Our mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.”

“When we’re done with it,” Garrity told National Geographic, “it’s going to last hundreds of years.”

Is the area really empty of people?

It’s true the APR does have the support of many Montanans. They have always supported the freedom of enjoying nature, hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation of all kinds, and keeping it available for all.

When viewed from the far-off crowded seaboard states, where the majority of Americans live, it may seem that central Montana is an area empty of people and unneeded for agriculture, as Prairie Reserve staff tell their story.

“We watched a video narrated by Tom Selek, and most people watching it would have believed that nobody was really here,” says Deanna Robbins, a rancher from Roy and co-founder of the United Property Owners of Montana, an advocacy group.

“The video never shows a ranch. It rarely shows a person, and totally ignores that there are families on the land with lives and communities that support and depend on them.”

But people do live here. Hundreds of men and women have planted their roots in Phillips County for well over 100 years—have worked hard to build strong communities, invested their lives, their incomes and their families. Literally, blood, sweat and tears.

Phillips County Fair brings out the crowds. Though sparsely settled, it is cattle country and made up of close-knit communities. Photo by

This is cattle country, so it is sparsely settled. Still, it’s not empty.

Furthermore, every rocky ridge has its own history, its own story. Every badlands creek bed that runs high in springtime and only trickles through by August, could tell a tale or two. Is all this to be obliterated with the goal of returning these coulees to nature?

Every town, no matter how small, has its doctors, dentists, bankers, teachers, churches, and businesses of all kinds, courthouse, public buildings, its city boosters and all the rest—built up through all those years—just like any small new England town.

For its part, APR makes the argument that the reserve, once completed, will be a relatively small island in a sea of agriculture.

Not so small, local people contend—the area is larger than Yellowstone Park. As large as Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park put together.

Anna Brown takes a fall during the Mutton Busting event at the Youth Rodeo. She finished in fourth place with a score of 61. Photo by Pierre Bibbs, Phillips County News.

Already the Prairie Reserve swallows up the 30 ranches purchased, with a planned 20 still to go. That’s at least 50 families gone from parts of seven counties, much of it in Phillips County.

Why can’t they stop now, be content with what they have?

Sure, there’s room for some buffalo on this range. Prairie Reserve already runs nearly a thousand buffalo there.

Prairie Reserve already has nearly a thousand head of buffalo grazing their property in the area. Photo by National Park Service.

Maybe that’s enough. Why would 10,000 be that much better?

APR also makes a case that their project will bring in thousands of tourists.

But ranchers don’t see the benefits of tourism replacing the close-knit vibrancy of their own community.

Roger Siroky, a rancher who lives near Roy and Bohemian Corner, foresees just the opposite effect. Towns drying up without agriculture to sustain them.

“All these businesses, ranches and farms, they all complement each other so you have a vibrant community, with all the various businesses and services that serve that community.

“It is total fallacy how the APR is going to [bring all this] tourism. It’s going to destroy the economic vitality and financial workings of the whole area.

“As people leave, there are less people. This business shuts down, and then that business shuts down until you have a few people left as an island without the infrastructure remaining to serve a producing community, and it simply goes downhill.

“It gets to be a domino effect,” he adds.

World hunger continues

Furthermore, ranchers feel a strong commitment to help provide food for a hungry world. They know that throughout the world, people are going to bed hungry every night.

By the year 2050 the world population is estimated to increase by over 35 percent to 9 billion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says this will cause the demand for food to nearly double—a rise of 70 to 100 percent.

In 2017, Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest prevalence of food insecurity (55 percent) and severe food insecurity (28 percent), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (32 percent food insecure and 12 percent severely food insecure), and South Asia (30 percent and 13 percent), according to USDA. A lot of hungry people.

Drought in Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Up to 178,000 children were expected to be impacted by severe acute malnutrition between July 2019 and June 2020. Adding to challenges were swarms of locusts destroying crops near the end of 2019. Photo by Stuart Price.

“We provide food for the world,” says rancher Alex Bellmayer. His family has run cattle on the shortgrass prairie near Malta, Montana for more than a century.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “But it’s a good lifestyle.”

“Agriculture is Montana’s number one industry,” agrees Gladys Walling of Winifred. “When my husband and I purchased land with allotments on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, we worked with BLM in managing those allotments. In a dry year, we limited the number of cattle and moved our cattle out earlier.

“The APR is requesting that the BLM allow them to graze bison year around and remove interior fencing on their Federal allotments connected to their private property.

“My hope is that the BLM will continue leasing with good management of these allotments and deny the APR’s request,” she adds.

BLM range specialists explain to ranchers the merits of cross-fencing and rotating cattle frequently from one smaller pasture to another to make the best use of available grass.

But instead, the APR theory seems to be that buffalo will “know” when they are overgrazing and naturally make the best use of the grass in their single enormous pasture. So no divider fences?

“Having the traditional use of the Federal grazing districts is a large part of many of these operations out here, and it certainly plays a role in growing protein for a hungry world,” says Robbins.

Robbins understands the APR appeal to outside investors, but she’s not buying.

“It’s such a marketable pitch—this big American Serengeti,” she said. “They don’t have to stick to the truth much, and people fall for it.”

“Agricultural producers have protected this land. It is pristine due to 100 years of agriculture caring for it,” Robbins added.

Greg Oxarart, a 60-year-old rancher who has lived in Phillips County his entire life, says the outside money financing the project bothers him.

“I just don’t believe in their mission,” Oxarart said of the APR. “They plan on taking over this whole county. Malta would be off the map if they have their way.

“People who make a living here take good care of the land because if they don’t they’re soon gone.” They also help to feed the nation, he said. It’s the contribution farmers and ranchers make to the hungry people of the world and they are proud to do this.

How can Young People return Home to Ranch?

“I can’t believe that people would support what they’re trying to do,” says Bill French, an 81-year-old rancher who owns property abutting the reserve. “They’re trying to ruin what I’ve worked the last 60 years of my life to build up. They don’t say that, but that’s what they’re doing.”

One of the most distressing aspects is how the APR enterprises aims to co-opt the future. If they succeed, land set aside for conservation is land that will be unavailable for cattle far into the distant future for ranching families to expand.

Ranchers contend that their millions of fund-raising dollars gives APR an unfair advantage when ranches come up for sale.

Younger generations already have difficulty financially, taking over ranching from parents and grandparents. It can take a lifetime to get the land to pay for itself.

Phillips County Farm Bureau President Tom DePuydt explains it is difficult for agriculture producers in the county to compete financially with the American Prairie Reserve for land.

“We are seeing young families coming back to many of these places, but it’s almost like there’s a cloud hanging over their head,” said DePuydt. “What’s their future if these people keep coming in with that type of money? Are they just going to get squeezed out if they can’t even compete for leases?

“There are a lot of kids who want to come home and ranch. We see the land around here priced really high for the recreational value, and agriculture won’t pay for it.”

“Not everybody has enough money set aside to sell at a lower price,” said Robbins “Making a go in ranching is challenging, and the APR’s ability to raise funds and receive grants makes it all the harder for ranchers to compete for land.”

Rancher Greg Oxarart moves cattle up road in south Phillips County. He has concerns about the impact of Prairie Reserve in cattle country. Photo by Lauren Chase, Montana Stockgrowers.

Oxarart has three sons who would like to come home to Phillips County to ranch, but land prices, which he says have increased since APF began buying property, are making that difficult. If four or five people banded together to buy land in order to make a living, he’d support that, he said.

The land is beautiful, he says, but it’s difficult to make a living here because it’s not intensely productive with cattle ranching its best use, Oxarart says.

“That’s why not many of them will live here,” he says of APR supporters. “When it’s 40 below in December, it becomes a challenge to get things done. Then you depend on your neighbors when you have breakdowns.”

Concerns for their Cattle

 Other issues divide as well. Cattle men and women can’t help feeling deep concerns over basic difficulties bound to confront them if bison are established, and large predators not currently living on APR lands are brought in, as they have been in Yellowstone Park.

For example:

  • How can ranchers protect their livestock from the relentless goal of environmentalists introducing still more large predators such as packs of wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions? Already, wolf packs brought into Yellowstone Park have multiplied and spread into many Montana counties.
  • How will ranchers protect their livestock from devastating diseases like brucellosis that run rampant in elk and other wild animals?
  • Will all those miles of exterior fencing be built high enough and strong enough—and consistently maintained well enough through all kinds of weather and conditions to hold buffalo—including those lone bison bulls on the rampage?

These are serious, important questions. But they all hinge on that larger question. Which vision or goal do Montanans want most for their citizens?

Vibrant communities can disappear

Are Montanans willing to sit by and watch thriving communities shattered and broken apart, in order that people can enjoy the wildlife refuges and parks that have always been there for them?

The only difference being, with Prairie Reserve they’ll be under another name, without cattle, with outsider, big money control, and surely some long-lasting bitterness over how changes have taken place.

Montanans have always supported the freedom of enjoying nature, hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation of all kinds, and keeping it available for all.

Yet having it forced on them in this way can be galling. The high-handedness of these outsiders is appalling. They have discovered something good and seem to believe they can take charge of it and keep it in “pristine” condition better than local people.

The federal bureaucracy of BLM seems all too willing to change leasing rules to accommodate the wishes of Prairie Reserve. Even Montana state wildlife officials approved a plan to allow bison to be categorized as wildlife outside of Yellowstone National Park.

“It worries me more than water, wind, drought, prices,” says Craig French, a rancher whose family is involved with the anti-APR movement in Phillips County.

“I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here,” says ranch owner Conni French. “For them to be successful in their goals, we can’t be here, and that’s not OK with us.”

French, who owns C Lazy J Ranch, believes in stewardship of the land and says she will never sell her spread to the reserve.

“We are the best hope to keep this land here,” French says. “I really feel like ranchers—these land stewards—are the best option for conservation.”

Two visions for the land, two goals that collide and divide

 There are two visions here, two separate goals for this land. One continues the local vision for progress as American settlers have always understood it. The other is the dream of turning the clock back to nature in a big way.
The concept of “wilding,” so precious to the environmentalist, means something different to the rancher. It means obliterating—destroying all progress.

Malta, a town of 2,000 population, could dwindle, say ranchers. They worry that each ranch APR acquires is one lost to the community, draining taxes from county treasury, children from schools, and business from stores. Photo by

The land can’t revert to nature in the way the Prairie Reserve supporters envision without clearing away the history—and the people. It means selling off all the cattle that graze this productive country.

This is what concerns the ranchers, who are realists. Its about two very different visions of how people want to use land in the American West. And who decides?

On the Great Plains of Montana, conservationists, environmentalists, and some tribes want to rewind the clock and return wild bison to the shortgrass prairie.

But ranchers say if that happens, their way of life—their very culture—will disappear. Sadly, it seems to be true.

They say each acre taken from cattle grazing threatens ranching operations and hurts the local economy.

Robbins said, “We feel the APR is not being honest. What APR really wants is a takeover of Federal land and control of how it’s managed.

“APR wants the rules changed to year-round grazing for their bison, rather than seasonal. The private land they own is a pretty small piece in proportion,” Robbins added. “They want to buy as little land as they can and control the Federal Land.

“Now they want the BLM to change the rules on your public land so they can graze year-round, tear out interior fences… If BLM changes its rules for APR then they’re actively empowering APR to bulldoze Montana families and communities.”

“We should not allow them to conduct a radical experiment on BLM land,” testified Chuck Denowh, of the United Property Owners of Montana.

 Small Town Businesses Decline and Disappear

In Phillips County, where the American Prairie Reserve has most of its land holdings and 86,000 head of cattle graze the land, many neighbors remain skeptical of the ambitious and groundbreaking conservation effort to save unbroken native prairie, viewing the growing reserve as a threat to a way of life and productive agricultural ground that fuels rural economies.

“I wasn’t aware of this purchase, but I think the loss of a ranch, and especially the continuation of additional ranches, will have an effect on our county,” said Phillips County Farm Bureau President Tom DePuydt, of a recent sale to Prairie Reserve.

For its part, APR makes the argument that the reserve, once completed, will be a relatively small island in a sea of agriculture.

Not so small, local people contend, since it displaces the 30 ranches already purchased, with a planned 20 still to go. That’s 50 families gone from parts of seven counties, and a great deal of Phillips County. They ask, why can’t they stop now, be content with what they have?

“Our country is real,” says Bill French, whose biggest fear is that the lands being set aside by the reserve will eventually be declared a national monument, sealing their future. “These people at American Prairie think they’ve discovered it.”

French’s grandparents homesteaded in the area in 1917, his wife’s, in 1910. He has served on the local soil and conservation district for 55 years.

“For these people to introduce or want to introduce free-roaming bison would basically put every rancher within reach of them out of business,” said Dee Boyce, who ranches between Lewistown and Grass Range.

Ranching is what makes Malta tick. Bellmayer said without it, his town would just be a brown smudge along the Amtrak railway line between Chicago and Seattle.

“If you have nothing but wild bison and antelope, then you might as well take the town out,” a rancher from the nearby town of Malta recently said on a local public radio station. “They’re destroying not only a way of life,” said another. “They’re destroying a very vital economic base which is a foundation of America.”

Boyce says, “I want the people in Lewistown and anywhere else to stop and think how they’re going to replace production agriculture as we know it. Agriculture is an important thing to this community and to me as a producer.

“For these people to introduce or want to introduce free-roaming bison would basically put every rancher within reach of them out of business.

“There are other options for conservation” other than APR, says Conni French. “Ranchers and other land stewards have been caring for and restoring this landscape for generations. This attitude of stewardship continues today.

“Local communities are working together with multiple stakeholders to create a win-win scenario,” she assures them. “Ranchers, wildlife, communities, economies and this unique ecosystem can all benefit from this type of collaboration.”

Yet, many ranchers feel—in some ways—that they are fighting this battle alone, with little support from town neighbors.

Maybe it is time for all Montanans to take a closer look at what is here, and what’s at risk of being destroyed. Surely many will say, “Stop! It’s enough.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 2. Return of Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park

Part 2. Return of Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park

By January 2019, the buffalo at Banff had been free-roaming for 5 months, after being released from their small enclosed pasture in the remote Panther Valley. They are being tracked and monitored by the Banff bison scientists with the help of GPS collar data, remote cameras and field observations.

The buffalo choose to spend summer months at high elevations and the shores of alpine lakes. With the cooler days of fall they came down to lower levels where grazing was good. Courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park

After their release, they spent their summer months at high elevations—along talus slopes and shores of alpine lakes. Then with the cooler days of fall, they came down to lower elevation meadows for excellent grazing on the grassy slopes and areas that were control-burned in the Panther and Red Deer valleys.

It takes two days for park rangers to get to these remote pastures on foot, ski or horseback, for observations on site.

“It is incredible to see these animals thriving in the wild after an absence of 140 years,” the Banff team reported. “With each passing day, they continue to prove that bison really do belong in Banff National Park.”

Since July 2018 the Banff herd has been free-roaming. The Red Deer and Cascade Expansions were opened (blue areas), with drift fencing (red), close monitoring and hazing if needed to encourage the buffalo to stay within the desired areas (green and blue). Image courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

The 10 cows calved twice in the Soft-Release Pasture in Panther Valley—in the spring of 2017 and 2018—to help them feel at home in the mountains. This increased the herd by over 50%, bringing the total to 36, adding 20 calves to the original 16 adults brought from the plains of Elk Island National Park.

 High-Tech Meets Wilderness—Parks Canada Learns from the Herd

The Banff Bison Team is highly committed to educating the public about the many aspects of the reintroducing the buffalo to remote areas of the Canadian Rocky Mountains where they lived 140 years ago.

1.They emphasize the ecological and conservation benefits that bison can bring to change the landscape and enrich plants and animals.

2.They are committed to helping indigenous people of the area renew their cultural and historical connections with the animals their ancestors once hunted here.

The staff is invested in helping Native people renew their cultural and historic connections with the buffalo that their ancestors once hunted here. Courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

3.They are committed to increasing opportunities for Canadians and visitors to learn about the ecological and cultural importance of this iconic animal that once held such importance for Native people and early settlers in the area.

Canadians, and indeed, people throughout the world both adults and children are urged to follow the Banff buffalo herd online and to participate in related activities.

“Follow the herd from home! See what life is like for the calves by watching our new webisode on YouTube. Share it with your friends and family on social media,” they challenge.

We can all connect by following their Bison Blog, Twitter and Facebook accounts, a YouTube web series, and attending fun interpretive programs in the Banff townsite and day-use areas. Live or online.

Following are reports from 2019 and 2020 Blogs:

“The return of bison to Banff National Park is an exciting experiment in a giant natural laboratory. To observe the herd as they reintegrate into the ecosystem, our scientists use remote technology that allows us to collect information without disturbing the animals.

“Here are some of the tools we use to monitor the herd and what the research reveals.”

The team monitors buffalo herd with long-distance scopes and other high-tech equipment. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

1–Herd tracking

“We rely on GPS radio collars as our most essential tool to monitor herd movements. Before we released the herd into the wild, we collared all the adults. The collars beam location information via satellites to a web platform that our team can access from the office.

Staff riding into the remote area of Panther Valley with pack horses. It takes two days to get there via horseback—or skiing or on foot—from any direction. Courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Panther Valley is located in one of the most remote parts of the park. It takes two days to get there on foot, ski or horseback from any direction.

“The collar data tells us about how the animals adapt to their new home and the type of habitat they prefer. We closely observe which animals travel together, and for the most part, they have all been travelling as a large group with some side adventures along the way.

“The collars give us insight into how bison interact with other species. For a few months, we watched with curiosity as collared wolves came to investigate and the bison stood their ground.

“Unfortunately, we only observed a few interactions before the wolves ventured outside of the park boundaries where they were legally trapped and killed. We also recently collared 10 bighorn sheep within ‘bison country’ to gather information about how bison affect sheep movements and habitat use.

“Collars allow us to pinpoint the location of the herd when we are in the field. Our scientists use a radio telemetry receiver to pick up the unique signal of each collar. Then, they can approach the herd from a safe distance to record data on behaviour, herd health and number of animals.


“Unfortunately, the collars have a limited lifespan, and many of the original collars have naturally dropped off—leaving 6 operational collars. We plan to recollar at least 3 animals this winter to maintain the vital flow of data about the herd.”

2 – Remote cameras

“Banff’s bison travel through rugged country that is difficult to access, and they are sensitive to human presence. That is where another important piece of technology comes in: remote cameras.

“Our network of remote cameras captures the secret life of the herd. We set them up along trails we know the animals use. When an animal passes by, it triggers a sensor and captures a photo or video.

“Images from remote cameras reveal information that would be difficult to observe in person, such as detailed health observations. Remote cameras also capture some special moments that would otherwise go unseen, like this photo of three generations of the herd all in one frame.

“Our network of remote cameras captures the secret life of the herd. We set them up along trails we know the animals use. When an animal passes by, it triggers a sensor and captures a photo or video.

“Images from remote cameras reveal information that would be difficult to observe in person, such as detailed health observations. Remote cameras also capture some special moments that would otherwise go unseen, like a photo of three generations of the herd all in one frame.”

3- Scat sampling

“Wherever bison roam they leave behind bison dung, a stinky but important clue that tells us what they are eating.

“As part of a long-term monitoring program, our scientists collect dung samples from the field. We analyze the samples in the lab to track the types of plants the bison have been eating. The data helps us learn about the Banff bison diet and the type of habitat they need to thrive.”

4 – Bird monitoring

“If you see a bird soaring above you in some of Banff’s most remote valleys, a bison may have helped raise it! Birds and bison have a special relationship. Some birds, like the Brown Headed Cowbird, co-evolved with bison to pluck bugs from their back.

“Others, like the Olive-sided Flycatcher, use fuzzy bison wool to line their nests. Bison also increase grassland habitat that benefits meadow-loving birds.

“To assess the effects of bison on birds, we monitor bird populations both inside and nearby the bison reintroduction zone. By recording birdsong in the same places each spring, we track changes in species diversity and distribution.

“This non-invasive method gives us a greater understanding of the cascading impacts of returning a keystone species to the ecosystem.

“Our research in the backcountry of Banff National Park is on the leading edge of conservation science. As one of only 8 wild herds in North America, what we learn from the Banff bison herd benefits the broader world of bison conservation.”

February 2019: One Lonesome Buffalo

“When the bison herd crossed the threshold between captivity and freedom in the wilderness of Banff National Park, it was a historic moment for conservation.

“It was also the start of what has since become a solitary life for one of the herd’s bulls—bull #18— in one of Banff’s remote valleys. This blog traces his journey since the herd was released.

“The herd is spending its first morning in the wild, high on a talus slope. #18 initially grazes alongside the herd but soon breaks from the group and continues northwards, leaving the rest of the herd to meander the ridges of the Snow Creek Valley in search of alpine plants.

Number 18, a lonesome bull wanders alone for months. He weaves his way between willow bushes, naps at high alpine lakes and trudges through thick forest. Will he continue his solo journey thru Banff’s remote valleys? Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“Edging across the slopes, #18 weaves his way between willow bushes and ambles down an old trail into the Red Deer Valley. For days, he explores meadows in the valley bottom. He picks through pockets of vegetation in an old burned forest.

“He eventually travels east, like the herd’s 2 other lone wandering bulls, but unlike them, he bumps into a stretch of fencing at the park boundary and returns westward. It would be the only interaction with a fence he has for the next 6 months.

“On his westerly trek back into the heart of the reintroduction zone, he turns north to follow Divide Creek. Along the way, he naps at an alpine lake and trudges through thick forest. He finally arrives in the Clearwater Valley in early September.

“This area is within the park but outside the reintroduction zone, so we deploy our staff to apply gentle pressure to redirect his movements. These efforts work to get the momentum started, and within a couple of days, he returns to his frequent haunt—the old burn in the Red Deer Valley.

“In late September, #18 makes a surprise reunion back with the main herd that is grazing in the Panther Valley. For a few days, they travel in lockstep, and then they part ways once more. #18 plods his way back to the Red Deer Valley, alone.

“For months now, #18 has spent the majority of his time in the Red Deer Valley. According to our GPS data, he has crossed paths more often with the resident wolf pack than with other bison.

“It’s normal for bulls to separate from the herd during the winter months. Bulls of breeding age tend to rejoin the herd for mating season in late July and August. What is interesting about #18 is his contrast with other bulls.

“Upon arrival to Banff, he was the oldest bull, but according to our field observations, he was one of the least dominant bulls during the soft-release phase. Following the full-release, the 2 most dominant bulls left the project area and were removed from the project, while the other bulls have generally stayed with the main herd.

“Each passing season teaches us more about Banff’s bison. Data from #18 and the rest of the animals, gathered through GPS collars, remote cameras and field observations, will help us understand how they establish home ranges and what influences their movements.

Buffalo are sensitive to human presence. The network of remote cameras captures the secret life of the herd. Remote cameras capture some special moments that would otherwise go unseen. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“We are looking forward to the spring/summer to learn more about #18’s behaviour. Will he return to the herd for mating season or will he continue his solo journey thru Banff’s remote valleys? Stay turned for updates on their movements in the coming months.

[Later:] “On a recent trip into the backcountry, our staff observed the main herd grazing in the Red Deer Valley. Everything looked normal…until we noticed the adult bull was different.

“It was no longer Bull #4 (who had been with the main herd for over a year) but Bull #18—the lonesome buffalo we wrote about back in February 2018! After a year of self-exile, Bull #18 is making some new friends.”

November 2, 2019 – Walking with Bison

“Indigenous peoples have a historical and cultural relationship with bison that spans thousands of years. The reintroduction of bison to Banff National Park fosters reconnection of this important relationship, inspires discovery, and provides stewardship and learning opportunities.

“In summer 2019, Parks Canada led a group of youth filmmakers from Treaty 7 though the remote Red Deer Valley where bison roam once again. In partnership with the Banff Centre, these filmmakers from the Nakoda A/V Club and the Napi Collective created short films inspired by their experience.

 “This guest blog, written by Amber Twoyoungmen of the Nakoda A/V Club talks about the ‘making of’ and the significance of the return of bison to Treaty 7 Territory:”

“The Nakoda A/V Club is a group of young emerging Indigenous artists from the Bow Valley making films and animations about narratives that matter to us. We work together to help each other to get through tough times and to create opportunities for each other to express our stories.

The Parks Canada team led a group of youth filmmakers—emerging Indigenous artists from the Bow Valley—through the remote Red Deer Valley where bison roam once again. “We made a movie to help tell the story.” Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“In the fall of 2018 we learned about the Bison being reintroduced in Banff National Park. We saw the films that Parks Canada made about the project, and we thought about what we could add to the story.

“Bison matter to Nakoda because they were always part of this place. They belong here. Their presence is part of the Bow Valley, just as the presence of people is. At one time, Banff was understood by my people as a place of gathering, of trade, and of healing.

“We asked Parks Canada if we could help tell the story of the return of bison, and we were so happy they agreed! We invited out our neighbors, the Napi Collective from the Siksika Nation to tell stories too, because they belong here also.

“We gathered at Banff Centre to think about the stories we wanted to tell, and to learn about Bison. Some of our members got to go to the Red Deer Valley where the Bison live! When they came back, they told us about what is was like, and they’ll tell you too.”

Javan Twoyoungmen: “Being invited out to the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains was an incredible experience….The Rockies hold a precious history with the Nakoda people, walking the path my ancestors once took was a memorable experience one that I will never forget.”

Javan Two Youngman walked the path his ancestors took in the Banff backcountry. An experience “I will never forget.” Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Iris Clarke: “I can honestly say it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I didn’t think I could hike that far. But it was the most rewarding too.”

Tashina Ear: “My experience hiking with the Parks Canada crew was very exciting but most of all, a great opportunity to learn with Parks Canada. Those very paths were also the same trails our Nakoda ancestors had walked through and I’ve never realized how hard they worked, and how long their days must have been. Our ancestors were so strong, and I want to be like them. I’ve been on simple little two-hour hikes but nothing compared to this! I’m greatly appreciative that I was given this opportunity to hike with Nakoda A/V Club members and the staff from Parks Canada.”

“After the hike, we made a movie. We used everything we learned, and everything we thought about to help tell the story we wanted to tell. As part of making that movie, we camped together, we hiked, we swam, and we went back to Banff to edit our work with the support of Banff Centre. Then we will be able to present what we made and what we learned as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

“The project was such a great opportunity. Bison matter not just to us but also to lots of beings in the mountains. Parks Canada taught us about how Bison leave fur for nests, make indents for pools of water to grow, and help to create conditions for grasses to thrive.

“At one time, I might have learned this by watching the Bison here in the Bow Valley, and I’m sad that’s not the case anymore, but I’m so excited that some of our members did get to learn this way by hiking in the Red Deer Valley!

“That’s a connection to who we used to be, and who we might be again someday. In the future, our story will include all the new people in the Valley too, just as this part of our story is so intertwined with Parks Canada.

“It’s an honor to work on something important. We loved working with Parks Canada to tell the story of the return of bison to Banff. Like all our stories, it’s not meant to have an end, it’s meant to be re-told, and shared often, because in the sharing of stories we bring our gifts to the valley, just like the Bison leaves its fur for all the small birds.”

“Thank you to guest blog writer, Amber Twoyoungmen and to all of the participating filmmakers for sharing their stories with us.”

February 14, 2020: Banff’s First Wild Bison Death in 140+ Years

“We knew it was going to happen eventually: one of Banff’s bison has gone missing and, given its young age, we expect it died of natural causes.

“Back in late September, one of our staff noticed one of two bison calves born in the wild this past June was no longer with its mother and the rest of the main herd. Meanwhile, a smaller, much fuzzier and reddish calf was sticking close to another cow. Back in the office, a report was filed: one calf lost, another calf just born.

What became of the missing calf? Though sad, this first bison death is an indication of success. From this perspective, the calf still lives.” Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“More than a month passed before staff could train binoculars on the increasingly elusive herd and corroborate the observation. A few weeks later, images from one of our remote cameras confirmed the situation.

“What became of the missing calf? As scientists and conservation staff overseeing the reintroduction project, we’d love to know exactly what happened, but the vastness of the 1200 km2 reintroduction zone, coupled with the increasing wildness of the herd (the missing calf’s mother is not radio collared) means we probably never will.

“This is simply an example of nature taking its course within a healthy ecosystem. The calf may have died from a predation event, succumbed to an injury or simply died in this harsh mountain environment through exposure to many natural hazards including severe weather, steep terrain and challenging stream crossings.

“What we do know is that nature wastes nothing and this first natural bison death in over 140 years will be a gain for the ecosystem of Banff National Park.

“Dozens of scavengers, including pine martens, ravens, voles, coyotes, beetles—and maybe even a wolverine or bear—will have already converted a new but ancient kind of meat, sinew and bone into their own muscles and perhaps even growing fetuses.

“And next spring the grass will be a little lusher where the bison died and the birds will be a little more active, swooping down for the insects that will still be cleaning up the site, and salvaging the remaining tufts of bison hair which the birds will use to line their nests.

“Although sad, this first bison death is an indication of success for the reintroduction project; Parks Canada’s goal, from the beginning, has been to restore the missing roles and relationships of bison within the ecosystem, not just bring back a missing animal.

“Looking at it from this perspective, the calf still lives.”

Buffalo follow single file along the edge of the lake, high in the mountains above the tree line. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Airlifting supplies deep into the remote country of Banff National Park. Staff prepares for drop from the helicopter high overhead, May 20, 2020. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Links to Parks Canada information on the 5-year project that is returning Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park are as follows:

 Follow the landmark journey of returning North America’s largest land mammal to Canada’s first national park with the links below:

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part 1: Returning Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park

Part 1: Returning Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park

For over a century, Parks Canada has been leading the charge to restore wild bison in Canada.

One of its first ventures was the display buffalo herd placed in a small 300-acre paddock near Banff in 1885.

Canada’s oldest national park—Banff National Park—is near the mountain resort of Banff and Lake Louise.

Moraine Lake in Banff National Park. Above the tree line—at about 2,300 m (7,500 ft)—the rugged mountains here are primarily rocks and ice. Rivers cut through deep canyons. Photo courtesy of Brandon Jean.

The scenery is spectacular, with rugged mountains rising on every side. The tree line is at about 2,134 m (7,000 ft), and above this is mostly rocks and ice.

Unlike other western mountain towns that focused on mining or agriculture, Banff was built as a tourist destination from the beginning. Planners for the Canadian Pacific Railroad built across Canada in 1885, discovered hot springs there and pronounced it tourist-worthy. The original Chalet Lake Louise was built on the lake shore in 1890.

At the time there were no roads. Only the transcontinental railway, towering Canadian Rockies, glaciers and rushing mountain rivers.

Now three to four million visitors come to the Banff area every year.

Thirteen of the early buffalo there were donated from the Bedson herd by Sir Donald A. Smith, Lord Strathcona, purchased from Samuel Bedson, warden of the prison near Winnipeg.

They originated with James McKay of Winnipeg, who rescued calves during Metis hunts in the western plains of Canada. Three more—two cows and a bull—were donated by Charles Goodnight from his Texas herd.

A display herd of buffalo at Banff was one of its early tourist attractions, beginning in 1885. It persisted there for over 100 years, but is now being replaced by free-roaming buffalo in the back country of Banff National Park. ©Parks Canada / Banff.

Buffalo were kept for over 100 years in a small enclosure near the railroad. Until 1997 the buffalo herd was a popular tourist attraction.

But it had served its purpose. It was time to move on.

The dream was always for free-roaming buffalo in the backcountry of Banff National Park, as in prehistoric days when they were hunted by indigenes people.

“Homecoming to Banff” planned

Twenty years went by before the 5-year restoration plan was ready.

The historic “Homecoming to Banff” was planned as a high-tech, scientific experiment producing a wealth of detailed research data.

One of the first questions Parks Canada personnel asked was: How do you get Plains buffalo to bond to a Rocky Mountain home?

Seasoned buffalo handlers were in agreement: Buffalo cows from the plains need to calve in the mountains before they will accept it as home. Otherwise, any self-respecting buffalo herd will travel until they reach a place they like—breaking down fences and trampling crops as needed to get there.

Cattle ranchers voiced concerns that buffalo would escape, damage property and spread disease to livestock. In response, the planners included a hazing zone, recapturing, and as a last resort destroying the animals. If they detect disease they agreed to cull the herd.

Goals of reintroduction

The reintroduction of bison to Banff brings back a keystone species that will:

• Support ecological integrity;

• Contribute to bison conservation since plains bison are only protected in three herds in less than 0.5% of their original range in Canada;

• Reconnect indigenous peoples and bison; and

• Create new opportunities for visitors and Canadians to learn about the ecological and cultural importance of bison.

Reintroduction of bison included a Blessing Ceremony with staff and Indigenous people in Banff National Park. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

The Parks Canada five-year plan includes:

Year 1 and 2 (2017-2018) involved a soft-release in Banff National Park.
The soft-release plan includes bringing young pregnant cows with a few bulls to a desirable, but remote, mountain valley in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, where they’d give birth to their first calves under the watchful eyes of biologists.

Carefully selected, the young herd came from the disease-free, extensively-tested and vaccinated herd at Elk Island National Park, which is just east of Edmonton, Alberta, in the Great Plains.

They were to be held for “summer vacation” in a small enclosed pasture in remote Panther Valley and fed hay that first winter. The following spring they calved a second year in the small “soft release” pasture of their new home. Gradually fences and barriers were moved giving access to an increasingly larger area.

Years 3 to 5 (2018-2022) the herd will at last be free to range—free-roaming it’s called.
They will range through the east part of the park where they will continue to live year around from then on in a wild state. The barriers are let down between the initial area to the Red Deer and Cascade Rivers expansion. A larger “Hazing Zone”

The Panther and Dormer River Valleys in the eastern part of Banff National Park form the core of the initial reintroduction zone, spanning 1200 km2 (463 mi2; green). Within this is the small Soft Release Pasture System (green dot). During the 5 years the Red Deer and Cascade Expansions (blue) will be added. The Hazing Zone is yellow. Short stretches of wildlife-friendly drift fencing (red) encourage bison to stay within the reintroduction zone—and outside the hazing zone—while allowing other wildlife to pass safely in and out of the park. Map courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

The rangers at Parks Canada brought it all together just in time to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary year.
On April 25th, 2017, they loaded 16 buffalo—12 two-year-old females and four two-year-old bulls—into shipping containers on trucks in Elk Island National Park and trucked them to Banff National Park.

There each shipping container—containing three or four husky buffalo—was picked up by helicopter and, dangling through mountain valleys by a metal cable, called a longline, was airlifted to their new soft release pasture in the Panther River valley.

There in grassy river bottom lands the shipping containers were dropped gently down at the edge of the forest.

Parks Canada personnel opened the containers and the buffalo burst out on the run.

Sixteen buffalo were loaded in shipping containers at Elk Island National Park and trucked to the Banff park. A helicopter then airlifted the containers to the soft-release pasture in a remote part of the park where they were opened and the bison released. Video courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

It was a remarkable moment as the buffalo charged into the verdant green mountain valley, looked around and began eating.

Ten healthy bison calves were born in the soft release area of Banff National Park’s remote backcountry before the end of May.

The new calves brought the herd number to 26. They mingled with the herd, napping in the sun, running and playing together.

In July, the soon-to-be-wild herd was moved from their 6-hectare winter pasture into a 12-hectare (30 acre) summer pasture, which includes tasty mountain grass, instead of the dry hay they are used to.

They drank from a clear, flowing river, instead of a cattle trough, and for the first time ever faced mountains to climb and explore.

This was a big change for these young animals. There is no running water or steep hills to climb in the safe plains pasture where they grew up in Elk Island National Park.

These new arrivals represent the future of buffalo restoration in Banff. They are part of the larger vision to reintroduce wild bison, and their gradual introduction to the park will help this herd anchor to the landscape and adopt it as their new home.

The Parks Canada team is committed to involving the public in the buffalo reintroduction effort. A well-considered, illustrated blog provides students and adults with fascinating details.

People throughout the world are being urged:

“Follow the herd from home! See what life is like for the calves by watching our new webisode on YouTube. Share it with your friends and family on social media.”

Herd dynamics—Cliques, leaders and rebels

“The herd arrived in Panther Valley in early February, and they’re settling into their new home. Part of that process is figuring out who’s who in the herd. We’ve been keeping a close eye on them and starting to notice personalities starting to form.

“In the past few weeks, Cow #12 has caught our attention. She’s normally the first cow to feed which could be a sign that she’s becoming a leader in the group. This is pretty exciting because bison tend to organize themselves into matriarchal societies. They are normally led by older females who know the way to the best food and watering holes.”

The soft-release bison pasture is located in one of the most remote parts of the park in Panther Valley. It takes two days to get there on foot, ski or horseback from any direction.

It takes two days to get to Panther Valley on foot, skis or horseback. The team takes turns staying in a nearby cabin, feeding hay, and monitoring the herd. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Members of the Bison team take turns staying in a nearby cabin. They feed hay, monitor health and track each of the bison. Other tasks include chopping wood, wildlife observations, care of horses and checking remote cameras.

Blogging: Spring 2018

“On a chilly week in March our team of veterinarians and conservation specialists flew to the bison paddock in the remote Panther Valley of Banff National Park to start a big task: radio collaring the adult female bison and giving ear tag transmitters to their calves.

“May 6, 2018. Buffalo are already shaping the landscape. Called keystone species, or ‘ecological engineers,’ they alter the ecosystem around them and benefit a huge number of other creatures, just by their natural behavior.

“Expected benefits of grazing buffalo:

• More forest openings for meadow-loving birds and other small mammals.

• Well-fertilized grass for other grazers like elk and deer.

• More seasonal wetland habitat for amphibians due to bison wallows filling with water.

• A new food source for a community of creatures including bears, wolves, ravens, and coyotes.

“Horseback riders gently push the buffalo to help them explore key grazing area of their new home range. In April our core bison team travelled to Montana to get more practice in using the technique called ‘natural stockmanship,’ a low-stress approach to interacting with herd animals, like bison.”

In Montana they worked with experienced cowboys who handle over 1,000 buffalo, moving them periodically between pastures. The Banff team hit the road to practice low-stress handling skills they’d need to guide their own small buffalo herd to areas of good grazing.

Meanwhile the animals remained in the smaller enclosure until summer, when the gates would open.

“July 23, 2018. First two of new crop of calves have arrived. Bison calves are born with bright reddish fur – giving them the nickname of “little reds.” After a few months, they start to look more like the chocolate brown of their parents.

The cows calved twice within the fenced-in soft-release pasture to help them bond to the area. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“This is the herd’s second calving season in the soft-release pasture, and it’s one of the main ways we’re helping them bond to their new home range. Bison tend to return to the same areas to calve each spring. By holding them for two calving seasons in the heart of the reintroduction zone, we hope that the herd will adopt this area as their annual calving ground.

“August 2, 2018. Bison have returned to the backcountry of Banff National Park. For the past year and a half, Parks Canada has cared for the animals as they adapted to their new home in Panther Valley in a remote area of Banff National Park. They were held in a soft-release pasture to anchor them to the location and help prepare them for their new life in the mountains.

“Now, the bison are ready for the next phase: free-roaming. We released the herd from the soft-release pasture and bison are now free to roam a 1200 sq km reintroduction zone in Banff’s eastern slopes. They will start to fulfill their role in the ecosystem as a “keystone species,” by creating a vibrant mosaic of habitats that benefits bugs to birds to bears, and hundreds of other species.

“We will use GPS collars to track their movements across the landscape and their interactions with other native species. Over time, we hope to learn how bison integrate into the ecosystem and understand their impact on the surrounding landscape.

“At the end of the pilot project in 2022, we will evaluate the success of the project and determine the future of bison restoration in Banff.

“On July 29, 2018, we opened the fence of the soft-release pasture and released the herd to roam the 1200 sq km reintroduction area in Banff’s eastern slopes.

“We spent 1.5 years helping these animals learn to adapt to their new home. Now the tables have turned, and we have started to learn from them. They are already teaching us new things about what it means to be a mountain bison.

“On release day, we opened the gate around noon and waited for the bison to find the opening. And we waited. And finally, around midnight, we captured the herd on camera crossing the fence-line and moving through the release corridor we built for them.

“The next morning, we awoke to find the soft-release pasture empty. Bison had finally found their freedom. We sent our team into the field to monitor the herd using telemetry to trace their radio collar signals. When we picked up their signals, we were surprised with what we found.

Picking up the signals of the released collared bison, staff were surprised to find them high on the mountain side. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“Instead of following the valley bottom like we expected, the herd travelled and stayed high on the mountainsides, grazing and bedding in the uppermost fingers of vegetation that edge into the rocky slopes. We watched as they dipped down to the creek for a drink and then returned up the slope to bed down. Two pregnant cows then climbed even higher to an alpine lake where they gave birth to the first wild calves born to the free-roaming herd—bringing the herd to 33 animals. Two other cows with newborns summited a nearby ridge overlooking the soft-release pasture.

“This is a new experience for these bison, as they have never lived without fences. They are learning their new boundaries, getting their first views of the landscape before them, and testing their mountain legs.

Cows and calves raised with water tanks cross river for first time. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“The vast majority of the herd seem content within 6 km of the initial release site, while a few bulls have ventured into a nearby valley and one bison bull has left the core reintroduction area and is currently on Province of Alberta lands just east of the national park. We continue to follow his movements closely, and may try to capture him if this walkabout takes him further east.

“Almost a month after the release of 31 bison into Banff’s backcountry, the majority of the herd has remained within 15 kilometers of the release site.

“However, two bulls ventured eastward well beyond the park boundary and were within a day’s walk from private lands. Our reintroduction plan and commitments to provincial stakeholders, promised that we would keep bison out of these areas.

“We considered capture and relocation for the first bull, but concluded that it was not feasible due to several factors including:

• The speed at which the bull was moving east,

• The main herd was also travelling northeast into challenging terrain where hazing efforts would be less effective—we needed to focus resources on managing the main herd,

• Wildfires limited the availability of helicopters able to capture and transport an animal as big as a bison, while thick smoke reduced visibility, and

• We had to consider potential risks to the bison team in attempting to immobilize and move bison under these constraints.

“In the end, we made the tough decision to euthanize this first bull.

“Fortunately, several days later, we were able to successfully capture and relocate the second bull, to a temporary home in Waterton Lakes National Park. This was a very challenging operation that involved a contracted capture team netting the bison from a helicopter.

“We then immobilized it, and rolled it into a custom built bison-bag that allowed us to sling the immobilized bison under a large helicopter without compromising its airway, just long enough to lift it into a nearby horse trailer for transport.

“Decisions to relocate or destroy an animal are difficult for our team and are made only after we have considered all other options. These two bulls were determined to travel eastward past any obstacles in their way, and they taught us a lot. We have modified our herding techniques and have expanded some strategic drift fencing.

“September 27, 2018. The herd is currently doing well and staying high on the mountainsides to forage on fresh vegetation and stay out of reach of biting flies.

“Since we released the herd, at least 4 more calves have been born in the wild! The herd now consists of 10 adult females, 4 adult bulls, 10 yearlings, and now 9 calves, totaling 33 animals. These bison appear to be settling into their new home and all animals are within the core reintroduction area.

“The main herd has spent most of their time in the Snow Creek Valley following their release into the wild. They have been grazing, bedding and raising their calves at high alpine lakes and on mountain slopes in one of the most spectacular areas in Banff’s backcountry.

“We want to help them discover key areas in their new range so they will be aware of seasonal grazing opportunities throughout the reintroduction zone. One place we wanted to show the herd is the Lower Panther Valley—a landscape of rolling meadows that is snow-free most of the year and offers some of the best fall and winter grazing in the area.

The staff uses low-stress skills to gently encourage the herd to discover key areas in their new range which offer good fall and winter grazing. Photo by Dan Rafla, ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

“The team used the low-stress skills learned from the Montana cowboys, with a combination of staff on foot, horseback and helicopter to gently herd the animals south toward the Panther Valley.

“On September 4th, we successfully encouraged the herd to calmly walk about 15 km southwards; eventually ending up right back where they started—in the soft-release pasture.

“It was an incredible sight to see 27 bison walking single file along ridges, edging along talus slopes and winding through willows in the valley bottom.”

Winter scene of buffalo at edge of woods in Banff National Park, May 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of ©Parks Canada / Banff National Park.

Next: Part 2. Return of Wild Buffalo to Banff National Park

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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