Millions of bison once roamed the American West providing sustenance for Native American tribes - until the giant creatures were hunted to near-extinction by European settlers. Now, those tribes are leading the effort to bring the bison back.
Now the Blackfeet Tribe is turning their dream to return the bison (sometimes referred to as American buffalo) a reality.
Bison are an elusive breed on the eastern border of Glacier National Park but Ervin Carlson and the Blackfeet Nation are changing that -- increasing their numbers where only two herds of a few hundred remain.
Partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society and several tribes they returned 90 bison to Blackfeet territory, re-enforcing a kinship passed through the ages.
"They were our food, clothing or lodging, our tools. They were all of our whole economy. You know, we existed on them,” Carlson explained.
When the European settlers arrived in the 1800s that delicate balance started to shift.
“To get rid of the buffalo was to actually get rid of the Indians, too,” Carlson said. “You know, that was our existence. So that was the real kind of the downward trend, I guess you could say.”
Millions of bison roamed the region in the 19th century until they were hunted to near extinction. They may have died out if not for a novel idea in 1907 to save the remaining few.
“The Blackfeet captured those calves and they took them across the mountains,” Carlson said. “They sold it to the Canadian government...and that how they ended up in Canada -- and Elk Island National Park,” Carlson explained.
Those descendants survived there for more than 100 years. Then in 2016, the Canadian Park Service gave the Buffalo Initiative permission to return 100 bison to the Blackfeet Reservation.
“When we got back waiting for us and all in celebration of these -- these buffalo coming home,” Carlson said.
Blessing ceremonies were held along the 400-mile route and one day later the bison were released on the Montana plains.
“That was a real great day for us,” Carlson recalled.
They’ve been living here peacefully ever since, but 13 of them made a detour -- continuing on to California’s Oakland Zoo.
“We were able to secure some of these to bring them here to Oakland for an incredible not only exhibit but really the educational purpose of why they're here,” Oakland Zoo CEO Nik Dehejia said.
He added the plans are to return the 10 babies born and bred at the zoo to the Montana plains.
The goal is to increase this herd’s size and even its territory. They’ll begin by opening the boundary between Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Reservation so the animals will have free rein to roam the mountain range.
"This is going to take a long time, but that's what we fight for every day,” Dehejia said.
It's a homecoming for 100 hundred descendants of the original plain’s bison is just a fraction of the millions that once lived there. But for the Blackfeet, it’s a bold and bodacious start to restore the true American West.
"You know, it's to me, it keeps — it keeps our history and our culture alive. This is home to them,” Carlson said. “And traveled a big full circle to across the mountains, to Canada, to back here to home.”