Where the Buffalo Roamed: Restoring the American Serengeti (Princeton Conservation Society)

My name is Alyson Fox and I am the CEO of American prairie reserve I Joined American prairie reserve ten years ago after I graduated from business school and I had spent summer in Glacier National Park and had a great appreciation for the big open spaces of the West and the Montana and Of public lands, and so when the opportunity to join American prairie reserve arose I jumped at it America preserve exists to do one thing and that is to build a vast grassland park here in northeastern, Montana When we established our National Park System, but in 1872 with Yellowstone We went on to put to protect a number of our iconic landscapes But we never protected a large swath of the grasslands and temperate grasslands worldwide or the least protected terrestrial biome So here in the 21st century We have the opportunity to create a three and a half million acre Wildlife Reserve with all of the flora and fauna and natural systems and processes that were once here back and a Place that the public can enjoy as well A lot of people think of Yellowstone as you know The flagship National Park Yellowstone for most of the species inside. It isn’t actually the native habitat Yellowstone is a more mountainous rocky type landscape and Actually, the only reason those species are popular in that area is because it’s one of the last protected areas It’s sort of their last refuge. They were driven back from all the other areas with grizzly bears wolves elk and bison Those are all Plains animals American prairie reserve once complete will be home to almost all the species that call Yellowstone home, too, and it’s a grassland park Which means that it will have a much higher carrying capacity as compared to Yellowstone’s terrain My name is Danny kingka and I am the wildlife restoration manager at American prairies My job is to take the the feed land that we required as american prairie reserve and and fill it up with animals At its simplest level how we go about doing that is different for different species in different contexts but the primary goal is to create the reserve this this large wildlife reserve and and then of course the the next goal is to is to fill it with wildlife everything from bison – wolves – black footed ferrets and impaired Oaks The project is one and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park We need that much space to have enough space for for bison to roam and not not just a small herd of 150 animals That’s that’s a token. That’s our conservation herd But a large enough heard that can that can that can migrate through and in graze the grasslands in ways that actually have ecological impacts that can maintain variable grass Heights Heterogeneous grass sites throughout the Prairie so that we can create habitat for multiple different bird species that require them long grasses and short grasses And no grasses at all Prairie dog towns that can stretch from one horizon to the other that can support things like black footed ferrets one of the most imperiled mammals on the continent Grasslands as an ecosystem are incredibly incredibly impaired across the planet for whatever reason they were overlooked 150 years ago when we were setting up the park system in this country and when other countries who are doing Conservation efforts for land preservation as well This place has been Used and traversed and loved by people for thousands and thousands of years And in to a large extent probably Co-evolved with the presence of people native peoples for thousands and thousands of years we keep that in mind as we do wildlife restoration that this is a place that even though it looks very very empty is a place that People have been for quite some time. We work primarily with the two tribes On Fort Belknap the onion the Dakota tribes and we have we’ve really been getting to know one another as neighbors over about the last decade and so we support one another’s event So every time we have a bison release here on America prairie reserve when we’re bringing in new bison We have members of the tribes come down and do a blessing ceremony and welcomed these bison back to their ancestral homelands My proper name is my great. Grandma said it was walking off horse caption But my modern-day name is George Paul horse captured jr. I am the son of Spada daughter who is the son of White Rabbit Who is the son of big Fox? Who is the son of? horse caption I’m awning in nowadays known as Grove on but I’m a white Claire man. That’s who I am the history of present-day Fort bound that like all in this Not a good deal Fort Belknap we were forced here We came to this comment And started settling the continent there was probably about 30 million bison and We thought it was an endless of why we felt that we could harvest the animal and they’ve never run out of ice Following the Civil War people started really settling up the plains and and they they Were rounding up the Indians or putting them onto reservations they knew the Bison was their food source, and they in order to subjugate the Indians they killed more bison and It finally ended up we wanted the land for grazing and for farming and People didn’t seem to really care Fort belknap Is a part of a much larger trapline which is called the 1855 treaty That was with us in the black united states government, but reduced reduced reduced, you know all the time In the united states government particularly in those days and some of the mentality I know is still there manifest destiny the end justifies the means Fort Belknap is just a very small part of us nomads. That’s grobotz Home range and our home range is coast to coast and pole to pole It’s really hard for the outside to wrap their mind around what the Buffalo mean to us We had such a close relationship Back when he was trying to civilize us turn us into Christians turn us into taxpayers Trying to get us just to change everything who we are and if you think about it very few races Other than the Indians went from their language their ceremonies all this stuff To where we are today in such a short period of time Phil Sheridan Civil War guy He went before the president at the time the President of the United States at the time in the only way We’re gonna deal with this Indian problem Get him to sit down on Reservations are in those days. That was territory He heard the word Indian Territory of like that is we have to get rid of the buffer? With the disappearance of the Buffalo a Religious movement known as the Ghost Dance spread throughout the tribes of the Western Great Plains it was believed that this prayer could bring back the Buffalo that idea of the Ghost Dance They were trying to dance. Oh dance back to buffer. He was trying to dance back their ways The Ghost Dance movement was seen as an act of rebellion by Washington in the winter of 1890 It came to a head at Wounded Knee There the US Army opened fire and killed hundreds of unarmed lakotas performing the dance mass. Yeah massacre massacres men women and children Unarmed during a ceremony that would be like going into a church or a synagogue or something and Killing a person just for being who they are with all hope of bringing the Bison back to the Great Plains gone It was much easier to force tribes like the Ani and the Dakota under reservations like Fort Belknap Which is located just north of the American prairie reserve In one sense. They had to come to the brink of extinction Because they want to do for a better Make the civilized And It just it just really Set things off kilter for our world There are scars that those things Leave This this grassland here in in northeastern Montana was identified as one of the the best Regions to try and preserve to preserve one of the last vestiges of that True virgin prairie ecosystem and restore it to look something like the American Serengeti that it was as few as 150 years ago when you would have large large herds of bison roaming out here as well as elk and deer and their their their their corresponding predators following through them through Open open grassland just just as Lewis and Clark saw it when they came through here and as the Native Americans knew it for thousands and thousands of Years before before white Europeans showed up on this continent Bison and our prairie dogs assume that role of ecosystem architect the Bison because of the way they graze provide heterogenous landscape in terms of grass height that’s Those multiple different types of grass being utilized by by multiple different species some grass Some birds will like tall grass some like short grass. I’m like no grass You name it the Bison managed that habitat so to speak for them and the prairie dogs kind of do the same thing there’s a kind of a romantic notion when folks think of certain parts of Africa the grasslands of Africa you imagine a Big open extensive landscape giraffes and zebras and lions and all these species that are out there moving as big herds big giant mammals out there on the landscape and That’s tragic because not that long ago very very recently in the grand scheme of things Just a couple hundred years ago. These grasslands would have been filled with North America’s own version of those large mammals these these Pleistocene remnants and these large charismatic mammals that would graze in the same abundance ease and not the same species, but Functionally similar ways as as the as the species that we think of is so iconic on those African grasslands Bison are important to creating the habitat restoring it to the way it looked for all of the species to call this place home Whether they’re here now or just finding their way out here Well, there’s certainly some controversy around this project because what we are aiming to create is a wildlife reserve and the this land has Been used for last hundred years as for cattle ranching primarily You know we’re buying the land for when it comes for sale on the open market just like anyone else would and so that I think that ability to do what we want on our own lands and have our own vision for our own lands is is respected by by a lot of our neighbors We also recognize that we are going to be surrounded by cattle ranching Even when our our final wildlife reserve vision is complete we actually saw a lot of opposition to the prior reserve around it just from neighboring ranches there was one billboard that said don’t Buffalo me and it was a protest of the reserves buying up land and a lot of that hostility is because the ranchers think that the pair reserved by buying up ranch land is eliminating the Rancher lifestyle from the West And I think they’re especially hostile because a lot of the prior reserves money comes from wealthy donors They remove all of these miles and miles of fences that surround the ranches and keep the cow in and if they want to have a contiguous Landscape for wildlife they have to remove all the fences So the land that the prairies are buys is going to be rewilding never to be used for ranching again The American prairie their unique anyway come and visit we’re not going to kick you off We’re not gonna you know, we’re gonna welcome you we’ll make you a sandwich We’ll invite you to some of you know, these doings that you know are going on and stuff would help you with your tourism Some of your farmers and ranchers think about it if that’s gonna be the biggest game reserve in North America You realize some of these farmers and ranchers the entrepreneur Opportunities that will arise out of that Anytime you try to do something new on the landscape. I think it’s only reasonable that certain people would have their hesitations about it We think that we can do this away and still be good neighbors Invigorate the economy of this area bringing lots and lots of tourism revenue maintain some of the traditional uses of this landscape Not lock it up. The whole idea of this place is to keep it open to people And we do what we can to be good neighbors I’ve had incredible experiences in every season out here. I think one of my favorite winter Experiences we had I was out here on the beautiful beautiful February Day Parade was covered as snow It’s bright blue skies And we saw a herd of probably six to eight hundred Pronghorn all moving in a group migrating south stretched out over a mile and now those are something that you know You’ll hear only the old timers see and I feel really incredibly fortunate to see that and as the pronghorn population Rebounds here we can we can get those kinds of sightings back Our bison got cameras critter cams that they were around their necks which allowed us to kind of see the world through the eyes of a bison and Those collars fell off after two weeks. They were programmed to fall off and it fell to me to Go find them you really really snowy out here this winter so kind of tough to get around and Seemed too far to ski and so I got a snowmobile and I and I took up over the hill trying to chase this this Beeping caller signal to try and go find it And so I came over on the snow machine and they heard me snow machines are loud And so they heard me before I came and when I got up on the ridge, I got to see 15 to 20 bison running full tilt through three to four feet of snow right across the horizon a giant magnificent powerful animal just plowing through all of this snow like it was like it was powder like it was like it was baking soda and just cruising right against this pale blue winter sky and I turned I’ll kill the engine right away and I just sat there and I watched it and you couldn’t see any fences couldn’t see Any people you could see miles and miles before the horizon and all I could see was snow and snow and snow and blue sky and these bison running across the landscape and I was like That’s why I’m here. That’s that’s that’s I think why we’re all here American prairie invited some of our kids in myself down They were releasing young Buffalo To BLM Bureau of Land Management land and they opened the gate Indians were not allowed to even think about releasing Buffalo there But when they open that gate to that BLM plant That was some ghosts answers prayers coming true Sometimes prayers take a long time long time My kids got to witness You

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