To the people whose roots run deepest in Montana, almost nothing has inflicted more environmental and economic harm than eliminating wild buffalo.
Our ancestors’ lives centered on a close relationship with buffalo for thousands of years. Eliminating buffalo from our homelands dealt a devastating blow to tribal communities, our connection to the land, our ability to sustain our families, and our ways of life.
The loss of buffalo has also created major health problems for the original inhabitants of this land. Diabetes is the No. 4 killer of Native Americans, killing us at twice the rate of the general population. This is partly because our healthy diet and active existence gathering and hunting have given way to poorer food and a more sedentary lifestyle -- and the loss of buffalo has been a factor.
So, it is with some sense of irony that many of us view a new environmental impact statement from the state of Montana examining the possibility of restoring a herd of perhaps 400 buffalo, numbers far below historic accounts and definitely not sustainable as a population.
Weighing impacts of returning some buffalo overlooks the bigger picture. We’ve lived for more than a century with the environmental and economic consequences of killing off buffalo. And how odd that Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is exploring buffalo restoration without formally consulting Montana tribes. It’s impossible to understand all the benefits of bringing back buffalo without talking to the Montana people most affected by their absence.
This summer, I’m attending tribal celebrations throughout Montana. I’ve spoken with hundreds of people from tribes across Montana and beyond about restoring buffalo in and around the million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Native voices speak loudly and clearly in support of restoring buffalo in Montana.
“I miss the taste of buffalo,” an elder told me recently. “Boy, we would cook that meat with those mushrooms that grow on them trees. It was really good." A lonesome stare came over her face, and I wondered at the memory that could make her look so lost. Another approached me and said, "I haven't had buffalo meat for a l-o-o-n-g time."
A middle-aged guy dressed in Army fatigues fished out his dried moose meat and mashed berries to share with me, saying he wished it were buffalo. He reminded me that, because of the loss of traditional foods, diabetes is rampant in Indian Country.
“I know,” I replied.
The loss of the buffalo has created many voids in many families. One man told me he could sure use a buffalo hide for a new drum.
I can’t stop thinking about the little girl who said the only buffalo she’s ever seen was on the photographic banner I’ve been raising at tribal celebrations. Or the boy who said the only buffalo he’s seen was in a zoo. No one should have to visit a zoo to connect with his heritage.
Several Montana tribes already are working to restore buffalo on their lands. Utah, Arizona and Alaska have established herds of wild buffalo on public lands without harming cattle ranching or agriculture. So have Alberta and Saskatchewan, in Canada. What people are doing for buffalo elsewhere can be done -- far better -- on public land in Montana. The state’s EIS leaves no doubt about this.
The one nagging question the EIS doesn’t address is, given the ability and opportunity to bring back some of our buffalo, why can doing nothing -- the EIS calls it the “No-Action Alternative” -- possibly be considered an option.
“No action” on buffalo means more environmental and economic harm, not less.
Marsha Small is the Montana tribal outreach associate for the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.