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How one Native American tribe is working to restore Montana’s buffalo population

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American Buffalo are currently an elusive breed on the eastern border of Glacier National Park — but one Native American tribe is working to return the species to their old roaming grounds. So far, the Blackfeet Nation has returned 90 of the buffalo to their territory in Montana.

“They were our food, our clothing our lodging, our tools,” said Ervin Carlson, the director of the Blackfeet Buffalo Program and president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council. “They were our whole economy … we existed on them.”

When European settlers arrived in the 1800s, that delicate balance shifted, until they were hunted to near extinction. But the tribe took action to save the animals. 

“The Blackfeet captured those calves and they took them across the mountains,” Carlson said. “They sold it to the Canadian government, and that’s how they got into Canada and they eventually ended up at Elk Island National Park.”

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In 2016, Canada allowed 100 buffalo to be returned to the Blackfeet Reservation.

“That was a real great day for us,” Carlson said.

They’ve been living there peacefully ever since. Thirteen of the buffalo even made a detour 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.

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Dehejia said he plans 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.

“You know, it’s to me, it keeps our history and our culture alive,” Carlson said. “This is home to them.”

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