Bison Return Home to Montana After a Century in Canada

Bison in Yellowstone in spring

After 109 years, descendants of bison that once roamed the Lower 48 will return home to Montana.

In April 2016, 89 genetically pure bison will travel by train from Elk Island National Park in Canada to the Blackfeet reservation. Their ancestors made the same trip in reverse at the turn-of-the-20th century after several Native Americans on Blackfeet land sold a group of wild bison to Charles Allard and Michel Pablo who later sold their herd to the Canadian government. At the time, bison were nearly extinct in the Lower 48.

The hope is the bison will roam from the Blackfeet reservation to Glacier National Park and Badger-Two Medicine wilderness. Their move south is the result of a treaty between the United States and Canada, according to the Associated Press, to restore bison to particular areas in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

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

Located 45 kilometers east of Edmonton, Canada, Elk Island and its herd have no history of brucellosis, a disease found in Yellowstone’s herd and a flashpoint for ranchers who fear bison will transmit the disease to their livestock. Established in 1906, Elk Island was Canada’s first wildlife sanctuary, established initially to provide a refuge for elk. One year after opening, the Canadian government bought 410 plains bison from Michel Pablo at $245 per bison. The animals arrived in 1907 by train in Lamont, Alberta, from Ravelli, Mont. From Lamont, they were herded to Elk Island.

This herd is not the first to make its way back to the United States from Elk Island. In 2010, 93 plains bison were moved to the American Prairie Reserve, followed by an additional 90 animals in the years since. Located on the high plains of northeastern Montana, the American Prairie Reserve is a 305,000-acre grassland reserve that is home to bison, elk, prairie dogs and 150 species of birds.