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After a century in Canada, Bison return to Montana reservation

The shipment of the the huge bovids from Elk Island National Park in Alberta to the Blackfeet reservation is the result of a 2014 treaty among U.S. and Canadian tribes. The treaty is an effort to restore bison to areas of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, where they once roamed in the millions, the Guardian reports.

“For thousands of years the Blackfeet lived among the buffalo here. The buffalo sustained our way of life, provided our food, clothing, shelter,” said Blackfeet chairman Harry Barnes. “It became part of our spiritual being. We want to return the buffalo.”

This trip will be the reverse of the journey made by their ancestors near the turn of the 20th century when several Native Americans sold a group of wild bison to Charles Allard and Michael Pablo, Yellowstone reports. In turn, they sold the herd to the Canadian government. Bison, also known as buffalo, were nearly extinct in the lower 48 by this time.

Elk Island, established in 1906, is located 45 kilometers east of Edmonton, Canada, and the herd here has no history of brucellosis, a disease that was found in Yellowstone’s herd. This concerned ranchers, who worry that bison may transmit the disease to their cattle. The park was originally formed to provide a refuge for elk. One year after the park’s opening, the Canadian government purchases 410 plains bison from Pablo at $245 per bison. They were taken by train in 1907 to Lamont, Alberta, from Ravelli, Montana. Once the animals reached Lamont, they were herded to Elk Island.

This isn’t the first time a herd has been transported back to the U.S. from Elk Island. In 2010, 93 plains bison were transported to the American Prairie Reserve, and that was followed up by another 90 animals in the years that followed. Located on northeastern Montana’s high plains, the American Prairie Reserve is a 305,000-acre grassland that provides a home for bison, elk, prairie dogs, and 150 species of birds.

In earlier times, tens of millions of bison roamed large swaths of North America, and were a primary source of food, clothing, and shelter for the Blackfeet people for thousands of years, RT.com reports. Unfortunately, the bison were hunted nearly into extinction by European settlers, and by 1877, the Canadian Blackfoot were compelled to sign a treaty that placed them on a reservation in southern Alberta, Legends of America reports. With bison nearly extinct, many Blackfeet people in Montana starved and had to rely upon the Indian Agency for food.

At the beginning of the 1800s, there were an estimated 20,000 Blackfeet people. Tragically, with diseases brought by Europeans, including small pox and measles, compiled with starvation and war, their numbers plunged to less than 5,000 by the turn of the century. Despite this sad statistic, the Blackfeet have made a comeback and haven’t lost their culture or their language. In the U.S. and Canada, their numbers have risen to 25,000.

It is hoped that these bison, which are genetically pure, will roam the Blackfeet reservation and to Glacier National Park and Badger-Two Medicine wilderness, Yellowstone reports.

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