The sound and sensation of 73 stampeding bison is unforgettable. It’s not the thundering roar of millions of animals experienced by prairie peoples for millennia and described by explorers centuries ago. It’s a heartbeat of hoofbeats that makes the ground beneath your feet seem hollow like a drum.
In addition to APR staff and families, we were joined by partners and volunteers with the Landmark adventure science program, journalists with National Geographic, and neighbors from the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Even prairie dogs came out to see school buses full of classes from Fort Belknap schools crest the hill above the Headquarters compound. A line of cars from the Medicine Bear Senior Center and other neighbors followed close behind.
APR President Sean Gerrity welcomed and thanked the crowd before introducing longtime supporter George Horse Capture, Jr., an Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) spiritual leader, Tribal Council Vice Chair, and APR National Council member. Addressing the younger generations, George encouraged students to feel at home and see the bison homecoming as an important part of the region’s long natural and cultural history.
“In one sense, we’re being a part of history. The Creator, in his wisdom, is putting things in place. These are seed buffalo.”
“Paleo bison, three-toed sloth, furry elephants… our people hunted these things out here. Today, feel those things while you’re out on the land. It might have been a few years, but we know this place.”
- George Horse Capture, Jr. (Vice President of the Fort Belknap Tribal Council; APR National Council Member)
The group traveled down the road to the bison handling facility, where Reserve Supervisor Damien Austin (with daughter in tow) spoke about the significance of these bison as descendants of the historic Pablo-Allard herd. Thanks in large part to the conservation vision of Michel Pablo, some of the last bison in Montana and North America were saved from slaughter, eventually establishing the herd at Elk Island National Park in the early 1900s. Cross-border collaboration between Parks Canada and American Prairie Reserve has now created a full-circle journey for the offspring of Pablo animals - a pilgrimage more than a century in the making.
John Stiffarm, a Fort Belknap teacher and Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) Spiritual Leader, offered a blessing in the Aaniiih language for the bison and those working to return them to the plains. He was then joined by Mike Talks Different, Nakoda (Assiniboine) Head Singer, with an honor song for the calves and their homecoming.
Listen now: in the new window, click the arrow in the top left to hear the song.
As anticipation rose among the bystanders, six high school students were chosen to serve as gatekeepers, opening the iron exit just out of view of the anxious calves. Everyone was silent, waiting.
Reserve biologists entered the main corral and walked cautiously along the edges to encourage the calves to venture closer to the open gate. The bison began to move en masse from corner to corner like an undulating sea of fur as they built up speed.
The dusty heartbeat of hooves soon trailed off into the distance.
The crowd returned their attention to the calves that were still in the corral, and the bison seemed equally content to observe their onlookers in the familiarity of the hay-filled handling facility.
To give the remaining bison time and space, the group returned to the Headquarters area to share a meal and conversations. Hours later the rest of the calves walked through the open gate persuaded by privacy and overwhelming curiosity, moving at their own pace as bison often do.
After lunch, visitors began their journey home in a caravan of cars and buses. Students and teachers made one other stop, parking the bus at the Medicine Rock cultural site in order to explore the ancient petroglyphs and make offerings under a clear blue sky.
As with every bison homecoming, the day is full of triumph, awe, and relief. The months of paperwork, travel, and animal care are pushed from the mind to make room for new memories of calves running across the prairie. The 73 Elk Island bison, now returned to the land of their ancestors, will blend into the existing herd of 270 animals, soon to be joined by nearly 100 copper-colored newborns. For the next couple of years, visitors may see this cohort of calves grouped together, hanging out and socializing like shaggy teenagers of the plains.
Next year marks 10 years of bison on American Prairie Reserve, and we will near 500 animals in the herd. Things are being put in place; the seed has been planted and is starting to grow.