From the desk of Darren Minier, Assistant Director of Animal Care
With increased media reports on the effects of global climate change, we’re hearing more and more about entire populations that are being confronted with the alternative to abandon their original homelands (in the case of humans) or habitats (in the case of non-human species), or face extinction.Less weather-oriented but still human-induced, events like these were ever present today as they were in the late 1800’s as the guise of westward expansion was coming to a close, having forced the migration of people and extinctions of animals who lived on the lands for centuries past.
In Montana and Alberta, the last four plains bison were taken in by the remaining First Peoples of that area. These calves and their progeny grew to a herd of thirteen and were sold to C. A. Allard and MichelPablo, two Montana ranchers on the Flathead reservation, becoming one of the last herds of bison in the US. Increased government pressure for settlement of the reservation canceled grazing rights for the herd, forcing the sale in 1907to Canada. The herd of 700 bison were slated for the new Banff National Park, but were herded over the course of four years to the area which is now ElkIsland National Park. Bison in the US were expatriated or managed, as were the people which depended on them.
Over the course of the next century, the bison would breed in Canada and the Siksikaitsitapi, whose name means "Blackfoot-speaking real people" and who followed bison herds for their existence for centuries, would struggle to identify without them.
Partnering with the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at Bronx Zoo in New York, the Conservation Society of California – Oakland Zoo worked with the Blackfeet Nation to bring bison back to their ancestral lands, and meaning to the people. In 2016 that happened, more by cattle truck than caravan and in less than a day than four years, but it happened. ThePablo-Allard progeny made their way back to Montana.
Arising from four calfs, however, contributes a genetic hurtle to the Blackfeet bison population - inbreeding. They can roam freely in the Blackfeet Nation, and into nearby Glacier National Park as is hoped, but the unseen genetic scar of westward expansion is present.
14 females from the Blackfeet herd recently met 2 males ofYellowstone origin in Oakland Zoo’s 13-acre bison exhibit habitat at OaklandZoo, whose offspring will be released in Montana. The mixing of genetics, or outbreeding, is a conservation technique unique to zoos and a real way the OaklandZoo is contributing to the sustainability of species most are not aware existed in California. It also contributes to the revival of an almost lost tribal culture focused on respect and brotherhood, not only for fellow people but all life that shares this planet.
To learn more about bison, our Partnership with the Blackfeet people, and how you can join in this story of restoration, join us atNational Bison Day at Oakland Zoo on November 2nd.