Tens of millions of wild bison once roamed freely across North America, before their populations were decimated by Euro-American settlers in the mid-1800s. Today, Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Cristina Eisenberg, in partnership with the Blackfoot First Nation, is leading a study to help prepare for the return of this iconic species to Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park and tribal lands in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The Missing Force of Nature
Narcisse Blood was a big man, the kind of man who, when he stood up, filled a doorway. A respected leader and member of the Kainai First Nation in Southern Alberta, also known as the Blood Tribe and part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Narcisse believed in the power of relationships to guide us. ‘If you just listen to the relationships,’ he said, ‘if you honor them, then it’s like the stars – everything will align and work the way it has always worked.’
His friendship with Dr. Cristina Eisenberg began – as many relationships do – on Facebook. In 2013, after he finished reading Cristina’s book The Wolf’s Tooth, Narcisse sent her a Facebook message: ‘I read your book and want to be your friend. Can you show me a trophic cascade?’ A trophic cascade, which Cristina describes in her book, refers to the relationships between species within a food web. Cristina, Earthwatch’s Chief Scientist and Principal Investigator of the expedition Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies, was surprised to hear from this highly respected Kainai elder, and accepted his friend request immediately.
Several months later, Cristina invited Narcisse and his wife, Alvine Mountain Horse, to her field site in Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park to show him her research. In this biodiversity hotspot, Cristina, her co-investigators, and her team study the relationships between wolves, elk, fire, grass, and aspen. They spoke about where the wolves had been, how many elk there were, and where aspen had spread into the grassland. They spoke of the fires they had set to maintain the ecosystem. She then turned to Narcisse and Alvine. ‘What do you think is going on here?’ she asked. ‘Well, there’s something missing,’ Narcisse said.
Tens of millions of wild bison, sometimes referred to as buffalo, once roamed the landscape across North America, including in and around Waterton. But in the mid- to late-1800s, Euro-American settlers decimated the population, effectively “de-wilding” the landscape.
That night at the Waterton research house, Cristina prepared dinner for Narcisse and Alvine. They spoke about the role that free-ranging bison once played in this ecosystem. At the end of the night, which was filled with stories about wolf encounters, elk hunts, and the importance of science to understand relationships in nature, Narcisse hugged Cristina goodbye and said, ‘I want you to do the work that you’re doing…on our land.’
The Blood Tribe Timber Limit
For more than 50 years, Blackfoot land in Alberta, known as the Blood Tribe Timber Limit, had been closed off to anyone who was not a member of the tribe. For years, non-tribal members had destroyed the tribe’s sacred forests and lush elk meadows through illegal logging and planting of invasive grasses. In a few parting words, Narcisse had granted permission for the first non-tribal member since 1960 to collect scientific data on that land. Cristina could now expand her research into a critical ecosystem.
By partnering with the Kainai First Nation and extending the field site into the Blood Timber Limit, the research could help to inform not only Waterton managers and the conservation community, but Kainai leaders who maintain tribal lands.
That dinner in Waterton was the last time Cristina would see Narcisse. In 2015, he was killed in a tragic car accident in Saskatchewan. But his legacy lives on. “The tribe talks about him today as if he’s still alive,” said Cristina. “‘His death brought us all together,’ they told me. That’s his legacy.”
Tens of millions of bison once roamed through North America, massive herds thundering across the Great Plains, leaving clouds of dust in their wake. But as Euro-American settlers moved west, the U.S. Army launched a campaign to eliminate bison in an effort to exert control over Native American tribes that depended on bison for food, clothing, shelter, tools, and myriad other materials. Bison habitat was converted into agriculture fields, and the species was hunted to near extinction. By the late 1880s, the iconic species that once dominated the landscape had been reduced to just 1,000 animals.
In the early 1900s, a group of conservationists led by zoologist and taxidermist William T. Hornaday, with support from Theodore Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club, launched a movement to save the bison from extinction. These conservationists helped to ensure the few remaining bison were transferred to protected land in Yellowstone National Park and Canada’s Great Slave Lake, while others were kept on private land and in zoos.
Over the years, as the captive bison population has grown, park managers have faced considerable challenges keeping the animals confined to the parks, where they are protected from hunting. “For animals that make up to 600-mile migrations, a place like Yellowstone is a postage stamp for bison,” said Cristina.
Outside of Yellowstone, conservation activists working with the Buffalo Field Campaign have positioned themselves along the park’s boundaries, attempting to herd any bison that approach the border back onto protected land, in some cases placing themselves between a bison and a bullet.
Although the herds are protected within the confines of the parks, bison are unable to fulfill their ecological role if they can’t migrate. “Bison stay briefly in an area, fertilize the crap out of the system, and then leave,” said Cristina. “And along comes the next wave of herbivores and everyone’s happy.” Bison also trample aspen, helping to keep grasslands open.
Back in Waterton, park managers have been setting prescribed fires to burn up overgrown aspen to create more grass. Fire, an integral component of this system for the last 10,000 years due to the fires indigenous people would set to help them hunt and improve habitat for bison, would remain a part of the equation, but with bison present, they would be needed less frequently.
The Buffalo Treaty
In 2014, Leroy Little Bear, an eminent Kainai elder from the Blackfoot Confederacy and former director of the Harvard University Native American Program, led the drafting of a historic treaty that called for the return of wild bison to tribal lands to fulfill the animal’s ecological, cultural, and spiritual role. With support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, members of eight U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty in September 2014 in Browning, Montana on Blackfeet territory – the first peace treaty of its kind among those tribes in more than 150 years. Today, there are more than 20 signatory tribes.
In February 2015, Parks Canada announced their plan to reintroduce free-ranging bison to Banff National Park – an initiative that launched just months ago, in February 2017. This initial release is part of a wider effort to reintroduce bison to regions they once inhabited in the U.S. and Canada, including Waterton and Kainai lands. A separate herd of over 80 young bison, which are being managed by the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, awaits release into the Badger-Two Medicine area. This effort is known as the Iinnii Initiative (iinnii means bison in Blackfoot).
Alix Morris is a science writer and the Director of Communications at Earthwatch Institute, with experience in science communications and global field research. Alix has a Masters in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Masters in Health Science from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
Earthwatch Institute is a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting citizens with scientists to conduct conservation research worldwide.