Home Again & Free-Ranging: Oakland Zoo’s American Bison Return to Blackfeet Reservation in Montana

Oakland Zoo
May 28, 2019

Female bison from the iconic ‘Pablo Allard’ herd in Montana that joined Oakland Zoo’s California Trail family last April. Credit: Oakland Zoo
One of the bison calves and its mother, born at Oakland Zoo last June. Credit: Steven Gotz
Bison from Oakland Zoo will return to Blackfeet land to continue their conservation journey in line with the Iinnii Initiative at the Zoo

Oakland, CA – May 28, 2019… Eleven of the American Bison that arrived at Oakland Zoo in April 2018 are now currently in route back to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. This return of the calves (and mothers) is part of the Bison Restoration Project, i.e., ‘Iinnii Initiative,’ to restore free-roaming bison to Blackfeet land and nearby National Parks. These bison females and their calves descended from the iconic ‘Pablo Allard’ herd and have been living in their 13-acre habitat at the California Trail for the past year. Dr. Joel Parrott, President & CEO of Oakland Zoo is accompanying the bison on their return journey and is serving as attending veterinarian for the herd.

To the Zoo’s surprise last year, the 14-member herd at Oakland Zoo’s California Trail grew to 24 within weeks of their arrival in April 2018. Many of the females that arrived from the Blackfeet Nation were in fact pregnant, and ten calves were born.

Though the Zoo will miss the herd they’ve grown to love since last April, they are excited to see them rejoin their Montana family. “Since we didn’t expect the females to calf last year, Mother Nature nudged us into returning the bison to the wild a bit sooner than planned. Luckily, we were well prepared, and have really enjoyed watching them grow,” said Darren Minier, Assistant Director of Animal Care at Oakland Zoo.

Oakland Zoo’s Animal Care staff took into consideration the very critical social bonds within the herd before determining which calves and mothers would go back to Montana. Female offspring stay with their mothers and aunts for the duration of their lives. It has been proven that animals have more success  free-ranging (i.e., wild)  when released with familiar individuals.


In order to diversify the genetics of Zoo herd’s future offspring, which will continue to be sent (along with the mothers) back to Blackfeet land and to Glacier National Park, two male American bison will soon join the Zoo’s remaining females. The end-goal, termed the Innii Initiative by the Blackfeet Nation, is to restore a herd of a few thousand living in an open range setting on Blackfeet tribal land, Glacier National Park & Waterton National Park (Rocky Mountains area).   The two males joining the Zoo’s herd were born of a non-surgical embryonic transfer technique developed by Dr. Jennifer Barfield of Univ of Colorado, Ft Collins and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This enables the Zoo to introduce the new genetic line, thereby diversifying the genetics of the Pablo Allard herd, without risk of exposure of any wildlife-associated diseases.

Oakland Zoo and Blackfeet Nation partner in educational programs and support mutual interest in promoting bison conservation and culture preservation. This partnership includes youth exchange for education, fundraising for projects, and promotion of eco-tourism programs.

It is an honor to be a part of the Iinnii Initiative in bringing American Bison back to the Blackfeet Nation people” says Amy Gotliffe, Director of Conservation at Oakland Zoo. These returning bison and those in the future will play a critical role in re-populating the open range.

The arrival of the bison from Oakland Zoo (Tuesday, May 28) will kick-off a four-day long “Iinnii Day Celebration”  by the Blackfeet Nation, which will include blessing and prayer ceremonies, educational opportunities, and story-telling – all centered on the importance of bison in the Blackfeet culture.



Oakland Zoo, home to more than 850+ native and exotic animals, is managed by the Conservation Society of California (CSC); a non-profit organization leading an informed and inspired community to take action for wildlife locally and globally. With over 25 conservation partners and projects worldwide, the CSC is committed to conservation-based education and saving species and their habitats in the wild. Oakland Zoo is dedicated to the humane treatment of animals and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the national organization that sets the highest standards for animal welfare for zoos and aquariums.


The bison, North America’s largest land mammal, once roamed the continent freely, helping sustain plains and prairie ecosystems as a keystone species through grazing, fertilization, trampling and other activities. Bison shaped the vegetation and landscape as they fed on and dispersed the seeds of grasses, sedges, and forbs. Several bird species adapted to or co-evolved with types of grasses and vegetation structures that had been, for millennia, grazed by millions of free-ranging bison. Bison have an important role in America’s history, culture and economy. Before being nearly wiped from existence by westward expansion, bison roamed across most of North America. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt and the American Bison Society began an effort to save the bison from extinction by shipping 15 animals by train from the WCS Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Many Native American tribes revere bison as a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage and maintain private bison herds on tribal lands throughout the West. Bison now exist in all 50 states in public and private herds, providing recreation opportunities for wildlife viewers in zoos, refuges and parks and sustaining the multimillion-dollar bison ranching and production business.


The origins of this herd date back to 1873 when Samuel Walking Coyote of the Pend d’Oreille tribe and three Blackfeet companions captured between four and seven calves orphaned during a hunt on Blackfeet land. Instinctively, with their mothers killed, the calves shadowed the hunter’s horses for security, making them easy to capture.

By 1884, Walking Coyote’s herd grew to 13 bison. Ten of these were sold to Michel Pablo and Charles Allard and formed the Pablo-Allard herd on the Flathead Reservation. This herd eventually became the largest in the United States, numbering 300 head, and played a key role in the preservation of bison by restocking and supplementing many public conservation herds, including those at Yellowstone National Park and the National Bison Range herd in Montana. When the U.S. Government initiated plans to open the Flathead Reservation to homesteaders in1906, Pablo sought a large grant for grazing land to graze his herd but was denied. He eventually sold his herd to the government of Canada. The animals were shipped to Elk Island National Park by train with the last shipment sent out in June of 1912.


The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council is a federally chartered Tribal organization dedicated to the restoration of buffalo to Tribal lands in manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices. ITBC has been working on this mission since 1992. Visit: http://www.itbcbuffalo.com