We have raised 11 heritage buffalo and then released them to the care of the people of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana.
Bison are North America's largest land mammal. The herds of herbivores, also known as American buffalo, help shape the biodiversity of the Northern Prairie Lands which span across five US states and two Canadian provinces. Through migratory grazing, the Bison naturally fertilize plants, spread seeds, and aerate soil with the stomping of their hooves - all of which helps varied plant life, insects, birds, and other mammals thrive. However, these massive mammals need our help and the situation to save their existence isn’t simple. America's Northern Plains stretch more than 180 million acres and are made up of temperate grasslands, a wild habitat that’s suffered from degradation and segmentation for more than a century. The Rocky Mountain Front in the traditional territory of the Blackfeet people offers some of the last Bison 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 has joined forces with the Iinnii Initiative, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and Glacier National Park to restore heritage Bison to the landscape of the Blackfoot Confederacy, sustain Blackfeet culture, create a homeland for Iinnii (bison, or buffalo) and raise educational awareness of this incredible animal known as the national mammal of the United States. As Ervin Carlson, the buffalo project manager with the Blackfeet tribe and President of the Intertribal Buffalo Council eloquently explains in this quote why this animal is so important to his people. “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.”
Just two centuries ago, between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North American grasslands. But by the late 1800s, sport hunting and mass slaughter 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 grown to about 450,000. However, fewer than 20,000 of these animals range freely and many have genes from cattle or other bison subspecies.
Bison play an important role in the history and culture of Native Americans, including the Blackfeet people. For this reason, the mass slaughter of Bison was culturally devastating for them - not only did Bison provide food and other crucial materials needed for survival on the prairie, but the loss of this iconic animal also severed the 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 aids in increasing the wild population of North American Bison through an outbreeding and release program. This partnership allows new genes to intentionally be integrated into Buffalo herds. Buffalo are brought to the zoo’s rolling hills habitat to roam and breed with the zoo’s population of Bison. Offspring from the arrangement are later returned to the Blackfeet tribal lands to roam freely. In 2016, Oakland Zoo, WCS, and the Blackfeet tribes began this partnership. The agreement allowed 88 Bison from Elk Island National Park in Canada to be uprooted and relocated to their ancestral lands on the Two Medicine River, in Browning, Montana. Oakland Zoo selected _____ animals from the herd to be part of the outbreeding program. The ultimate goal is for descendants from the new blended herd, including calves born at the zoo, to supply further restorations on wild landscapes in the Blackfeet Territory, which is located along the Rocky Mountain Front. The resurgence of Bison where they have been absent for a century will greatly benefit the prairie ecosystem and other wildlife, as well.
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 knowledge about this charismatic species and its rich cultural heritage.
Oakland Zoo will assist the Iinnii (Bison) Initiative (formed by the Blackfoot Confederacy) with the cultivation of ecotourism programs. These profitable experiences will help create nature-based, sustainable jobs and create a solid learning connection between Bison and the Blackfeet Nation heritage. Our vision is to host Oakland Zoo Nature and Heritage Expeditions to Montana and Glacier National Park.
SUPPORT Indigenous Lead Eco-Tourism.
VISIT Glacier National Park and support their work to protect wildlife.
RESPECT Bison habitat and keep a safe distance to prevent dangerous incidents.
CELEBRATE National Bison Day in November; it is our country’s national mammal