Descendants of a bison herd sent to Canada more than a century ago will be relocated to a Montana American Indian reservation next month, in what tribal leaders bill as a homecoming. The shipment of animals from Alberta's Elk Island National Park to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation follows a 2014 treaty among tribes in the US and Canada that aims to restore bison or buffalo to areas of the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains where millions once roamed, reports the AP. "For thousands of years the Blackfeet lived among the buffalo here," Blackfeet Chairman Harry Barnes says. "It became part of our spiritual being. We want to return the buffalo." The 89 bison will form the nucleus of a herd that tribal leaders envision will soon roam freely across the Blackfeet reservation, nearby Glacier National Park, and the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness.
Most bison that survive today—following a near-extinction in the late 1800s—are in commercial herds, raised for their meat and typically interbred with cattle. The Blackfeet have a commercial bison herd established in 1972 that numbers more than 400 animals. The lineage of Elk Island's bison, which experts say are free of cattle genes, traces back to a small group of animals captured by several American Indians on Blackfeet land just south of Canada, then later sold to the Canadian government. "They've made a big circle, but now they're coming home," says a Blackfeet member. Genetically pure bison from Yellowstone National Park will also be moved to two American Indian reservations in eastern and central Montana, though there are some concerns since the Elk Island population hasn't been exposed to brucellosis, a disease found in Yellowstone's herds. (Read more bison stories.)