America's Northern Plains have suffered from more than a century of degradation and loss of wild lands. The Rocky Mountain Front in the traditional territory of the Blackfeet people offers some of the last habitat in our country where wildlife can roam free. Bison, an iconic animal so important to the prairie ecosystem and America's cultural history, are one of a few wild species still missing from this landscape, after being nearly driven to extinction in the late 1880s.
Oakland Zoo is working cooperatively with the Iinnii Initiative, a partnership between the Blackfeet people and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), to restore bison to the landscape of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Iinnii Initiative is developing a new vision for conservation of the wildlands along the Rocky Mountain Front, sustaining Blackfeet culture and its unique connection with bison, and creating a homeland for iinnii (bison, or buffalo).
Loss of Wild Bison Population
The goal of the Iinnii Initiative is to restore a herd of several thousand bison to open range on Blackfeet tribal lands that are connected to Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. The presence of free-ranging bison where they have been absent for a century will benefit the prairie ecosystem and other wildlife, as well. Oakland Zoo will aid in this effort by allowing bison in our new California Trail bison exhibit to breed naturally, and returning their offspring to the Blackfeet tribal lands. In April 2014, Oakland Zoo, WCS and the Blackfeet tribes started this process by moving 88 bison from Elk Island National Park in Canada back to their ancestral lands on the Two Medicine River in Browning, Montana. This herd and its descendants - including calves born at Oakland Zoo - will supply further restorations on wild landscapes in the Blackfeet Territory along the Rocky Mountain Front.
Connecting Culture, Wildlife, and Conservation
The Iinnii Initiative is a grassroots organization that works to restore culture, language and economy in the Blackfoot Territory as bison are restored to this landscape. It calls on the Blackfeet people to develop a new vision for conservation on their lands, uniting people and nature in a shared and mutually beneficial effort toward sustainability. In addition to improving the ecology of the prairie grasslands, the Iinnii Initiative will reconnect the Blackfeet people to the bison culturally and spiritually. Realizing this vision will also provide new educational and economic opportunities for local communities, through nature-based businesses and conservation education. Restoring bison to tribal lands is an important milestone in the history of the Blackfeet people. As Ervin Carlson, the buffalo project manager with the Blackfeet tribe and President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council has explained, “These animals are culturally and spiritually connected to our people and I believe their homecoming will begin a healing of historical trauma to the Blackfeet people.”
Restoring Bison to Blackfeet Tribal Lands
The bison is North America's largest land mammal, and it plays a crucial role in shaping the biodiversity of the prairie through migratory grazing, wallowing, fertilizing, and seed dispersal - all of which helps varied plant life, insects, birds and other mammals thrive. Just two centuries ago, between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North America;s grasslands. But by the late 1800s, sport hunting and mass slaughter had brought the bison to the brink of extinction. In 1906 only about 1,000 bison, wild and captive, remained. Thanks to strong conservation efforts in the early 20th century, the bison population has been able to grow to about 450,000. But fewer than 20,000 of these animals range freely and many have genes from cattle or other bison subspecies. The vast majority of today's bison are raised as domestic livestock. Genetic diversity is also a major concern for the species; few genetically pure bison herds remain.
Loss of Cultural Connection to Wildlife
Wild bison (also known as buffalo) played an important role in the history and culture of Native Americans, including the Blackfeet feet people. For this reason, the mass slaughter of bison was culturally devastating for them - not only because bison provided food and other crucial materials needed for survival on the prairie, but because the loss of this iconic animal also severed an important spiritual connection to wildlife and the land. According to Harry Barnes, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council Chairman, “The elders have long believed that until the buffalo returned, the Blackfeet Tribal Nation would drift.”
Oakland Zoo's California Trail includes bison alongside other native Californian species. These bison will breed naturally, and their offspring will be returned to Blackfeet tribal land in Montana to strengthen the wild herd. Conservation education is also an important component of the California Trail.
Outreach and Education
Oakland Zoo aims to use our immense access to the public to help wildlife. We are enthusiastic about the return of bison to Blackfeet tribal lands, and we show this by sharing information about this charismatic species - as well as what people can do to help them - with our guests.
Oakland Zoo will assist the Iinnii Initiative with the cultivation of ecotourism programs, creating nature-based, sustainable jobs and inspiring learning and connection to bison and the Blackfeet Nation heritage.