How the return of bison connects travelers with Native cultures

From Montana to Alberta, Indigenous communities are developing ecotourism tied to the keystone species’ restoration.

A herd of bison roams across the grasslands of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. The tribe is one of several who are reintroducing the animal to their lands and sharing its cultural and ecological significance with visitors.

As the thunder of hooves cuts through the crisp Alberta air, Juanita Marois’s eyes well up with tears. Bringing bison back to the land of the Métis is the realization of a dream envisaged by her elders.

Bison last roamed the hills around North Saskatchewan River Valley more than 150 years ago. They were key to the cultural, spiritual, and economic health of the Métis Nation, members of which gathered by the thousands in the spring and fall for the bison hunt.

But bison populations plummeted in the 1800s due to overhunting by European settlers. The return of bison marks an important step in reconciliation for the Métis, who relied on the species for survival and are one of three recognized Indigenous peoples in Canada, along with First Nations and Inuit peoples.

Marois, head of the Métis Crossing cultural interpretation center near Edmonton, was a leading force in launching the property’s wildlife park, which opens to the public in December 2021. At the park, visitors can learn about Métis culture through a new series of interpretive tours focused on a herd of 16 bison. The property’s first hotel also opens next month, giving guests the chance to try winter pursuits such as snowshoeing, learning how to smoke traditionally harvested bison, and stargazing with Indigenous storytellers.

“When we talk about wanting to share our story in an experiential way, it’s not about looking at pictures or old things behind glass. It’s about making it real for people,” says Marois.

Métis Crossing’s new 300-acre park is part of a larger movement to get bison (Bison bison)—or buffalo, the term more often used in Native communities—back onto tribal lands in North America. These woolly symbols of strength aren’t just essential to the well-being of Indigenous communities, but also to vast ecosystems.

Restoring a keystone species

It’s estimated that 30 to 60 million bison once roamed the plains from Mexico to Canada. Much like the large wildebeest herds in East Africa, bison helped aerate the soil and disperse seeds important for biodiversity through their wallowing (dust-bathing) behavior. By 1900, there were less than a thousand of them.

For Native communities, buffalo were “life’s commissary”—sources of food as well as shelter and tools—and central to spiritual belief systems, says Jason Baldes, Tribal buffalo program manager for the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation.

“Because of our colonial history—a history of Congress and legislation promoting the destruction of buffalo as a means to subjugate Native Americans—animosity is still felt in the agricultural industry,” Baldes says. “When buffalo were eliminated and tribes were finally forced on reservations, it made way for large beef operations to come into existence and rule the land.”

(An ambitious plan aims to return Montana grasslands to their wild splendor.)

A member of the East Shoshone tribe, identified as Gweechoon Deka (“the buffalo eaters”), Baldes has made it his life’s work to reintroduce conservation bison—whose genes have not been mixed with those of cattle—to western reservations including his own 2.2 million-acre Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Wind River is now home to 98 bison, and Baldes has already seen a positive impact on the plant communities. The reservation welcomes visitors to powwows, heritage sites, and hiking trails.

In nearby Yellowstone National Park, travelers catch glimpses of one of the oldest remaining herds, which now numbers more than 5,000. Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit organization, hosts year-round educational tours such as wildlife photography workshops and overnight stays at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch, where guests can snowshoe while admiring bison, wolves, and elk from afar. 

Currently, bison aren’t allowed to roam outside the park due to fears they might transmit a disease called brucellosis to cattle. With limited habitat inside the park, yearly culls are used to control the population. But there’s been growing interest in moving disease-free bison to tribal lands, and in 2016 the park established the Bison Conservation Transfer Program with tribal partners to begin this process. Another key priority, says Baldes, is shifting land use away from livestock and toward natural ecological integrity.

“If we can decolonize our thinking, we can incorporate more holistic management styles and recognize the ecological and cultural importance of this animal to people and tribes,” Baldes adds. “It’s not just a Native American story, it’s an American story.”

Bridging the knowledge gap

The tangled history of bison remains largely unknown to many North Americans, but one project in the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa is aiming to change that. If successful, the Bison Bridge Foundation could help turn the old I-80 bridge, which spans a stretch of the Mississippi River, into the world’s longest human-made wildlife crossing and the first national park for either state.

Part of the proposal includes dedicating a hundred acres of grasslands to a bison enclosure. Pedestrians and cyclists on the adjacent path would be able to view the herd safely and car traffic would be rerouted to a new bridge built farther down the river.

When putting together the proposal, Illinois-based conservationist Chad Pregracke sought the guidance of ecological and tribal experts including Baldes, who says the project could provide a unique opportunity to educate more people about the history of bison. After all, 42,000 cars drive across the existing bridge each day. 

Pregracke, who became a local hero through his river cleanup organization Living Lands and Waters, believes bison could boost tourism to the Quad Cities, benefit the environment, and reduce the waste and costs associated with demolishing the current bridge.

But the project is not without its critics. Cristina Eisenberg, an ecologist who blends Indigenous traditions with western science, says that keeping bison in small enclosures can be exploitative. She argues that volunteer science projects can make a more meaningful impact. 

A recent expedition she led with the environmental nonprofit Earthwatch, “Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies,” got travelers involved in field research in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and in the Blackfeet tribal lands, while being immersed in the culture of the Kainai First Nation.

Partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Blackfeet Tribe moved 90 bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta to its reservation in Montana. Future goals include opening the boundary between the reservation and Glacier National Park, giving the herd more room to roam and visitors more chances to see the animals.

Eisenberg cites the Buffalo Treaty, created by Leroy Little Bear, a Kainai First Nation elder, as an exciting development in the push for free-ranging bison. Since 2014 more than 50 First Nations and tribes have signed on to support the creation of a string of bison reserves that would function as a corridor, allowing wildlife to resume their natural migration between the U.S. and Canada.

Expanding the herds

In the U.S.’s Northern Great Plains, where cattle grazing remains the prevailing use of land, Wizipan Little Elk, a citizen of the Sicangu Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe), dreams of fulfilling a goal inspired by one of his elders: to dedicate one million new acres to buffalo.

Through the Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Little Elk’s Rosebud Economic Development Corporation and partners are establishing the world’s largest Native-owned and managed bison herd. The 28,000-acre range will be home to 1,500 animals and form the backbone of what he calls “the new Lakota economy”—a project that benefits the community financially, socially, and environmentally.

“I always tell people, if we can do it here, this kind of work can happen anywhere. And, quite frankly, this is the kind of approach that’s needed if we’re going to solve the climate crisis,” says Little Elk.

(Explore Native history in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park.)

This work is just one component of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s larger regenerative agricultural movement and their “Seven Gen Plan,” a 175-year strategy to increase the prosperity of the Lakota people and the region. Once the herd is built up over the next few years, they’ll explore tourism opportunities such as a new museum, which will add to the region’s existing cultural highlights, including the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, an active archaeological site, and Watecha Bowl, a Sioux Falls restaurant serving Lakota cuisine. 

In the future, Little Elk says they may explore building a meat-processing facility but stresses that “buffalo will always be treated like buffalo”—grass-fed, honored, and harvested according to spiritual and cultural protocols, which include using every part of the animal.

Reflecting on the day when the first hundred bison were released onto the Rosebud Sioux’s territory in October 2020, Little Elk says he felt emotional. “Buffalo have taken care of us for thousands and thousands of years and we really owe them,” he says. “This is one small first step in providing them with a space to be who they are.”

Julia Eskins is a Toronto-based writer who covers travel, design, and wellness. Follow her on Instagram.

Louise Johns is a Montana-based National Geographic Explorer and photojournalist whose work focuses on rural communities. Follow her on Instagram.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded National Geographic Explorer Louise Johns’ work.  Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers.

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