FORT BELKNAP, Mont. -- Bison once helped sustain Native Americans on the plains of Montana. Now, Indians on the Fort Belknap Reservation say it's time they returned the favor.
About 150 people gathered Aug. 22 to watch as 34 genetically pure bison from Yellowstone National Park were released on the reservation about 16 miles south of Fort Belknap.
The bison rumbled out of cattle trucks to the cheers of onlookers and disappeared across the prairie land.
"I wouldn't miss this -- gosh," says Patty Quisno, a tribal council member.
The relocations are part of an attempt to establish new bison herds while curbing the periodic slaughter of the animals when they leave Yellowstone.
Bison "helped us, our ancestors, survive out here on the prairie," says Mark Azure, who heads the tribe's bison program. "So to be able to take that next step, and return the favor, so to speak, it feels good."
Last year, the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department transplanted 70 bison from Yellowstone to the Fort Peck reservation in northeast Montana, with the intent that half of the animals would be taken to Fort Belknap, about 180 miles west.
Some ranchers challenged the move, fearing the bison could spread disease and compete with cattle for grazing. But earlier this summer, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the transfers were legal.
The bison released Aug. 22 tested negative for brucellosis and were released in a 1,000-acre pasture with an 8-foot fence. One cow was injured and was not released.
Tribal councilman Mike Fox says the tribe will manage a herd of about 150 bison and use them as seed stock for other tribes or agencies wanting to reintroduce bison on their land.
The tribe has a commercial herd of 500 bison that have cattle genes and are kept in a separate pasture.
Fox says bison disappeared from the Fort Belknap area around 1910.
"It's a homecoming for the animals," he says.