It was somewhat sunny, but windy and cool at the Blackfeet Tribe’s AMS Ranch on Monday, April 4. The Crazy Dog Society had already been on the scene since around noon, setting up the tents that would frame the speakers and provide a place for the meal to be served. Ceremonies were scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., but the object of the celebration, some 88 yearling buffalo calves descended from the original animals that roamed Blackfeet Country, were delayed in loading at Elk Island Provincial Park.
The Crazy Dogs were undeterred, however, and sang their songs before a roaring fire, with the energy and determination for which they are noted. Speakers arrived and talked about the importance of bison and their meaning to the Blackfeet people. Chief Earl Old Person sang the Buffalo Stone Song in honor of the ancient hunters of his Tribe who would sing it to bring the bison during hard times. Old Person also changed the name of the ranch to the Buffalo Calf Winter Camp.
The yearling calves had been loaded with some difficulty into a horse trailer and semi trailer earlier at Elk Island National Park in Alberta. They are descended from 36 genetically pure bison collected by Michel Pablo and Charles Allard around the turn of the 20th Century, and whose descendants were sold to Canada in 1908. Today the herd of around 400 bison lives at Elk Island National Park, with extra animals being sold or offered to conservation organizations. The Blackfeet qualified as being a conservation organization and paid $350 each for feeding, testing and shipping to the Winter Camp.
At the Winter Camp last week, the speakers had finished and the songs were sung, but the buffalo had still not appeared so the Crazy Dogs took over and started the feast. Each person entering the wall tent had a plate of basics handed over, with special plates for elders. More Crazy Dogs dished up the main course items as the line moved smoothly through and the many people were served.
Then the trucks were spotted on top of the ridge. Blackfeet Councilman Roland Kennerly Jr. and a band of riders had made their way to the top earlier and were in position to lead the truck and semi down the hill, to the cheers and cries of those waiting below.
When a veterinarian arrived to break the seal on the trailers, the doors were finally opened and the crowds waited expectantly. The Crazy Dogs worked to control the people and keep them back from the trailer, but the yearlings in the semi refused to emerge from their place of safety. It wasn’t until the next morning that they finally found the outdoors more to their liking.
The buffalo are now in a small pen where they will be observed for 30 days before being released into the larger pastures of the Winter Camp. Ervin Carlson, director of the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, said the 88 will be kept and raised so the herd can continue to grow. He said his program and the Inii Initiative aim to reintroduce the animal to the Rocky Mountain Front, including Glacier National Park, Waterton National Park and the Badger-Two Medicine area.
This summer, the herd will travel to their summer camp at the Smith Ranch south of Browning. The transfer will be the focus of a Student Cultural Day planned for Friday, May 13. The ceremonies will feature a variety of events and the renaming of the ranch to reflect its new charge.
The Blackfeet Tribe has another herd, probably from another bloodline, that numbers around 425 animals. At present, Carlson said the Tribe will keep the two herds separate from each other, but eventually he said bulls from the new herd will likely be introduced to the older herd to change their genetics to align more closely with the original stock.
Much of the work in returning the bison to Blackfeet Country was done in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Carlson said, and now the Blackfeet program has a new partner in the Oakland Zoo in California. Carlson said the zoo is building an exhibit there with a pasture, and around 15 bison will be shipped there. All the calves born in Oakland will be returned to the reservation, and in the meantime several exchanges in both education and research will be established between the zoo and the Blackfeet. Not only that, students will also be exchanged back and forth as part of the project, sponsored by the Oakland Zoo.
While visitors will not be able to observe the new herd from the highway this summer, Carlson said he hopes to land funding for fencing a pasture near the highway for future summer seasons.
Finally, Carlson apologized for the long wait and disappointment at last week’s ceremonies, but pointed to the May 13 event as a way people can not only celebrate the return of the herd, but also see the animals and honor their presence.