In the early 1700s, the estimated population of the American bison across North America was more than 60 million. They were a major food source for Native Americans from Alaska to Mexico, from New York to Georgia. Then with the western expansion of the United States came commercial hunting and disease spread by domestic cattle. By 1889, the species was nearly extinct, with fewer than 550 individuals, most of those in a single herd. Since then, the species has recovered to approximately 31,000 wild bison and as many as 500,000 more in private hands.

In Montana, Native American lawmakers want the Biden administration to help them push through a plan to reintroduce wild American bison to Glacier National Park and the neighboring Charles M. Russell Refuge, where they formerly were a major part of the ecosystem.

The request for federal support comes after Montana governor Greg Gianforte canceled a bison reintroduction plan. The plan had been approved by his predecessor, former governor Steve Bullock. Gianforte said that the plan “didn’t do right by farmers, ranchers, and private property owners.”

The eight members of the Legislature’s American Indian Caucus who wrote to the Biden administration seek federal support to override that decision.

“It feels like during this legislative session, Native concerns and even buffalo as part of Native culture have just been invisible,” said State Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Democrat from Browning, Montana, and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. “American tribes in Montana have a deep-rooted connection with the buffalo, from commerce to religion to cultural values.”

In Montana, American bison have been successfully restored to several Native American reservations, but farmers worry about increasing their range affecting grazing for commercial herds or spreading disease.

The letter from the caucus was sent to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, but her office has yet to respond.

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