Oakland Zoo helping return American Bison to tribal lands in Montana

The Oakland Zoo is doing their part to strengthen American bison herds that roam Blackfeet tribal lands in Montana and national parks in the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

On Tuesday, two male American bison from a different herd in northern Colorado joined eight female bison that have been living at the zoo after a transfer last year from Blackfeet Nation tribal lands and Glacier National Park in Montana and Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada.

The Blackfeet Nation had been without bison, a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage, since 1873 due to hunting.

But three years ago, under a partnership with the Blackfeet Tribe, the zoo helped bring 89 bison from a national park in Canada to their land, and the herd grew enormously. 

“It is an honor to be a part of the (initiative) in bringing American Bison back to the Blackfeet Nation people” said Amy Gotliffe, the zoo’s director of conservation. “These returning bison and those in the future will play a critical role in re-populating the open range.”

To lessen inbreeding and genetically diversify the future off-spring of those bison, the zoo last spring brought 14 female bison from the tribal land to the zoo’s California Trail exhibit, a 56-acre exhibit that features animals that are native to - but no longer present in - California, including the iconic bison. 

Zoo officials said the bison quickly settled into a sprawling habitat of rolling grasslands and oak trees, with a large pond and dust wallows to allow them to live as they naturally do. They were a welcome addition for visitors who had not had an opportunity to see American bison at the zoo before. 

“People don’t realize they used to live in California, and they’ve been gone for over a century,’’ said zoo spokeswoman Erin Dogan Harrison. “They are really majestic, they’re beautiful.”

Soon, zoo officials learned that most of the new arrivals were already pregnant, and nine months later ten calves were born, bringing the zoo herd from 14 to 24. A few weeks ago, eleven members of that herd returned to Blackfeet tribal land, while the remainder stayed at the zoo for future mating with the new male bison. 

“We’re very happy¬ to be working with Oakland Zoo. It is so important to be returning this iconic animal and its historic bloodline to our culture - and to preserve that culture for generations to come. For centuries, the buffalo have taken care of us. It is now our turn to take care of them,” said Ervin Carlson, president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, Blackfeet Nation.