Denver donates 35 bison to Native American tribes: NPR
The city of Denver donated 35 bison to several Native American tribes and a memorial council in Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming. The transfers marked another example of indigenous peoples reclaiming stewardship of the lands and animals their ancestors managed for thousands of years.
After a ceremony on Wednesday, the animals were loaded onto trucks and moved to tribal lands.
The city’s parks department transferred 17 bison — which many, including tribal members, commonly refer to as buffalo — to the Northern Arapaho Tribe and 12 to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, both located in Wyoming. Five went to the Yuchi tribe of Oklahoma, who will use the animals to establish a new herd. One will go to the Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado.
“Our tribes, our ancestors were buffaloes,” says Jason Baldes, senior director of the Tribal Buffalo Program at the National Wildlife Federation and executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative. “We want to make sure that our young people today also have this historical and contemporary connection with this animal.”
This means restoring the herd of each tribe to the point that the native peoples can “put them back into our diet, provide these animals to our cultural and spiritual belief systems” and provide educational opportunities for young people, Baldes says.
The Shoshone and Arapaho tribes restored their herds with 10 animals each in 2016 and 2019, respectively, Baldes says. The herds of the two tribes now number several dozen animals.
In Denver’s mountain park system, Denver Parks and Recreation maintains two conservation herds that are descended from North America’s last wild bison, according to a news release. The herds were originally established in Denver City Park near the city and Denver Zoo, then moved to a park west of Denver in 1914.
Since 2018, the city has donated 85 surplus bison to Native American tribes instead of auctioning them off, which the parks department says “kept the herd at a healthy population size and promoted genetic diversity within of the managed bison population”.
By 2030, the city will have donated about 300 bison to tribes, says Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation.
The first donation came from Gilmore’s relationship with Bill and Rich Tall Bull of the Tall Bull Memorial Council, when he asked the brothers if they would be interested in a bison donation.
“We auction them off anyway,” Gilmore recalled telling them. “That’s what we should do.”
The city of Denver reads land acknowledgment to all of its events, acknowledging the tribes that once called the area home. But those are just words, says Gilmore, and “we don’t tick any boxes here in Denver. We follow.”
“Bison, buffalo are part of the land,” says Gilmore. “We are returning the land to these individuals, these tribal members, and we are returning them to their homeland.” that he said, is far more important than the money the city would get from auctioning off the animals.
The transfer is part of a national movement to increase stewardship of Indigenous bison
Tens of millions of bison lived in North America. By the late 1800s, however, “The bison were nearly extinct due to uncontrolled hunting and a US policy of eradication tied to intentional harm and control of Native American tribes,” according to the Department of the Interior.
Thanks to conservation efforts, the North American bison population has rebounded to around half a million, but the majority are raised as livestock in commercial herds. Only about 30,000 live in conservation herds, according to the National Park Service.
This most recent transfer came two weeks after US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a conservation order aimed at restoring large herds of bison to Native American lands. She also announced that the ministry would invest $25 million in building new herds and supporting transfers of bison to tribes.
The InterTribal Buffalo Council, a nationwide coalition of 80 tribes, has restored 25,000 buffaloes in 65 herds across Native American lands in 20 states, according to Baldes, who sits on their board of directors. In recent years, herds have increased as federal, state and local governments, private ranches and other tribes transfer animals to reservations.
The work in Denver “highlights the larger question of how important it is for the federal government to support efforts like this,” Baldes said.