The birth of every buffalo calf on tribal land marks a cultural and spiritual victory that gives tribal members hope. As each calf struggles to stand and walk, the hearts of tribal members celebrate their own survival, their strength in community, and their dreams of opportunity for future generations.
At the first Tribal Buffalo Conservation Summit in Denver on Nov. 1-3, representatives from dozens of Native American nations from 11 states gathered to share their experiences in bringing buffalo back to their tribal lands and to help other tribes start buffalo herds. The gathering demonstrated the strong unity and commitment that is building around buffalo conservation and the partnerships that are necessary to achieve a shared tribal vision.
Speakers at the summit recalled the tens of millions of buffalo that dominated the West for thousands of years, tilling the ground with their hooves to cultivate the rich and diverse grasslands that nourished hundreds of wildlife species. Buffalo also embody the power of community. In winter, buffalo gather together and stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing winter storms to shield the herd from brutal blizzards.
At the summit, the panels of tribal, conservation, and wildlife experts faced into the challenges of buffalo conservation, sharing their hard-learned lessons in moving herds, grazing requirements, water supplies, genetics, and a wealth of other information that will foster more successes. Tribal representatives also talked about how the return of buffalo is reviving ecosystems, fostering the growth and return of native plants, birds, and other wildlife to the prairies.
Cultural leaders explained how restoring buffalo to tribal lands revives the traditions that were inspired by buffalo hunts and ceremonial practices where everyone in the tribe, from the very young to the elderly, had a role. All shared in the buffalo bounty that provided food, clothing, shelter, medicines, ceremonial items, tools and other necessities for life.
The summit, hosted by the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Tribes, Intertribal Buffalo Council, National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, and World Wildlife Fund, brought together tribes that have led the way in buffalo conservation. In the past six years, many tribes have worked to restore hundreds of buffalo to tribal lands in Montana, Wyoming, and other parts of the West. At the summit, a collaborative vision emerged of restoring tens of thousands of buffalo on hundreds of thousands of acres of tribal lands across the West in the decades ahead.
For the tribes, buffalo are far more than a western wildlife icon. The restoration of bison herds represents the rebirth of centuries-old tribal traditions that ensured survival and new opportunities to engage youth in raising buffalo to learn about their own culture. Bringing buffalo back also provides opportunities for creating jobs in rural areas, working with surrounding communities, and producing a healthy, organic food source.
Dozens of buffalo calves were born on tribal lands in 2018, a tribute to the years of work and the partnerships that made buffalo restoration possible. As a speaker said at the end of the summit, bringing back herds of buffalo to tribal lands is a concrete example of healing the past and creating a better future.
Garrit Voggesser is director of tribal partnerships for the National Wildlife Federation.