This week, bison returned to Montana after 100 years in exile. It’s a story about connecting two countries and two cultures; connecting an ancient people to a vital traditional relationship with nature; connecting a missing species to an otherwise intact ecosystem; connecting people to a sustainable food source; connecting various tribes through a traditional alliance; and connecting youth to nature through a culturally significant symbol. (Nat Geo Voices blog)
Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.
- The Voices blog post is about the recent repatriation of bison from a national park in Alberta, Canada, to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. But the Blackfeet are nicknamed the “Buffalo People,” not the “Bison People.” What’s the difference between buffalo and bison? Consult this Mental Floss article for some help.
- In Canada and Montana? Nothing. “In North America, the names are used interchangeably for the species Bison bison,” says Ross MacPhee, Curator of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History.
- Outside North America, bison and buffalo are very different bovids. Big, humpbacked bison are native to North America and Europe. Cattle-like buffalo are found in Africa and Asia. To tell the difference between a bison and a buffalo, “just look at the horns,” MacPhee says. “[Bison’s] are like typical cow horns; in buffalo, they are relatively huge, sweeping arcs.”
- Why are Blackfeet called the “Buffalo People”?
- The Blackfeet Confederacy (the North Piegan, the South Piegan, the Blood, and the Siksika) have followed the migration of bison across the Northern Plains for more than 10,000 years. According to Nat Geo, bison, called iiniiwa in Blackfeet, “provide food, clothing, shelter, [and] . . . are also important in trade and fill the tribe’s spiritual needs.”
- Today, there are about 500,000 bison in North America. Why is the repatriation of 90 calves such an important event? Read through the Nat Geo blog post and watch our video for some help.
- Culture: The repatriation is an historic moment for the American Blackfeet nation. The calves are descendants from a Montana herd that was sold and moved to Canada about a hundred years ago. For the first time this century, the Blackfeet are going to have free-range bison on their 9,000-acre reservation.
- Environment: Although bison have recovered rapidly since reaching near-extinction in the 19th century, only 15,000 are “home on the range,” or free-range. Most North American bison live on private lands as livestock.
- Science: The Montana calves are purebred bison. Most bison raised as livestock—so, almost all bison—have been enhanced with cattle genes.
- How are bison “bio-engineers of the natural landscape”? Read through the Nat Geo blog post and our short encyclopedic entry on prairies for some help.
- According to Nat Geo, bison keep prairies healthy “by grazing in grasslands; shedding a wooly type hair that is used in bird nests; shaping these landscapes to create habitat for other prairie species (e.g. prairie dogs and birds); and providing food resources for grizzly bears and wolves as well as humans.”
- Our favorite: According to our entry, a bison’s relatively small, pointed hooves turn up the soil, just like a plow. Grazing bison actually aerate the soil and allow it to hold more water and nutrients.
Nat Geo: Bison and the WWF
Wildlife Conservation Society: Vote Bison!