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NM helps shape bison conservation

The Blackfeet Nation Buffalo Herd in its summer pasture in Browning, Montana. The Blackfeet Nation is working to restore wild, free-ranging bison on its reservation in northern Montana, which will support cultural restoration efforts. (Kelly Stoner/Wildlife Conservation Society)

Leaders of the New York Zoological Society (NYZS) and its Bronx Zoo, together with President Theodore Roosevelt and other conservationists, established the American Bison Society (ABS) in 1905. The fledgling group soon launched a public campaign to prevent the extinction of the American bison. In the previous half-century, 30 million to 60 million animals had been slaughtered, leaving just over 500 animals in the United States by the late 1800s.

The devastation was ecological and cultural – and it was calculated. Many of the leaders of the time, including President Ulysses S. Grant, saw buffalo eradication as a solution to the “Indian Problem.” In 1867, U.S. Lt. Col. Richard Dodge made this sentiment clear when he said, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

At the time, ABS’ clarion call was primarily an ecological one. When it was clear extinction had been avoided, ABS wound down. But in 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society, as NYZS had been renamed, reestablished ABS to create a platform from which to launch a bolder and transformative vision: the cultural and ecological restoration of bison across North America.

Nearly a decade later, in 2014, dignitaries from U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed a treaty – the first among them in more than 150 years – to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo, or bison, on tribal/first nations reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada.

This is a vision grounded in the recognition that Native people see buffalo as a brother: “We and the buffalo are one,” said Leroy Little Bear, a leader from the Blood Tribe in Southern Alberta, at a recent gathering of the more than 30 Tribes and First Nations party to the treaty.

Last week at the Pueblo of Pojoaque, the American Bison Society Conference & Workshop brought together a diversity of bison experts: tribes, first nations, agencies, scientists, managers, conservationists, producers, youth, storytellers, artists and philanthropists, to share experiences and strategies for advancing bison restoration from Canada to Mexico.

For many, the modern conservation movement emerged from the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. In truth, indigenous peoples have been living in an intricately tended web of relationship and reciprocity – read conservation – for millennia. These are cultures and economies born of gratitude and abundance as opposed to commodification and scarcity. Take only what you need versus take all that you can as fast as you can.

Words matter and often reflect our worldviews, values and identities. The perspectives or worldviews we invite to the table shape the conversation. And how we shape the conversation informs the outcome. The modern language of conservation tends to the linear, the reductionist, the mechanistic, leading us to measure success by acres, miles and conservation designations.

The values embedded, consciously or unconsciously, reflect a language of ownership, control, dominion over a language of separation. But there is a much older language we can hear if we slow and listen. A language that recognizes we have been wild for 99% of our history. That recognizes humans and animals and land are inextricably intertwined in the most intimate of embraces.

We see an enormous opportunity for scaling and sustaining impact in North American conservation. One that recognizes that preventing a species’ extinction or designating a national monument were huge triumphs in their time, but are no longer bold enough today. By framing conservation through a biocultural lens, we co-create a new conservation paradigm for the 21st Century – one that embodies the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. With respect to buffalo, that means indigenous-led, but at a scale far greater than exists today.

As we prepared for the first ABS conference on indigenous lands in the American Southwest, we welcomed the idea of indigenous peoples sitting at the head of the conservation table and shaping the conversation about bison restoration. We hope to develop a set of resolutions to inform policy and decision makers at provincial, state and national levels, and urge action in support of continental-scale recovery in the next decade.

As at no time before, we have the opportunity now to make real a broad strategy for bison recovery across this great continent that braids indigenous science, western conservation, economics, and art and culture into an inspiring vision that connects and unites us from Canada to Mexico.

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