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Denver donates 35 bison to Native American tribes

The city of Denver has donated 35 bison to several Native American tribes and one memorial council in Colorado, Oklahoma and Wyoming. The transfers marked another example of Indigenous people reclaiming stewardship over land and animals their ancestors managed for thousands of years.

After a ceremony on Wednesday, the animals were loaded onto trucks and moved to tribal lands.

The city's Parks Department transferred 17 bison — which many, including Tribal members, commonly call buffalo — to the Northern Arapaho Tribe and 12 to the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, both located in Wyoming. Five went to the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma, which will use the animals to establish a new herd. One will go to the Tall Bull Memorial Council in Colorado.

"Our tribes, our ancestors were buffalo people," says Jason Baldes, a Tribal buffalo program senior manager at the National Wildlife Federation and executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative. "We want to ensure that our young people today also have that historical and contemporary connection to this animal."

That means restoring each tribe's herd to the point that Indigenous people can "get them back into our diet, provide those animals for our cultural and spiritual belief systems," and provide educational opportunities for young people, Baldes says.

The Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes restored their herds with 10 animals each in 2016 and 2019, respectively, Baldes says. Both tribes' herds have now grown to several dozen animals.

In the Denver Mountain Parks system, Denver Parks and Recreation maintains two conservation herds that are descended from the last wild bison in North America, according to a press release. The herds were originally established in Denver's City Park by the city and the Denver Zoo, then moved to a park west of Denver in 1914.

Since 2018, the city has donated 85 surplus bison to Native American tribes instead of selling them at auction, which the Parks Department says "kept the herd at a healthy population size and promoted genetic diversity within the managed bison population."

By 2030, the city will have donated about 300 bison to tribes, says Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of Denver Parks and Recreation.

The first donation came from Gilmore's relationship with Bill and Rich Tall Bull of the Tall Bull Memorial Council, when he asked the brothers if they would be interested in a bison donation.

"We auction them off anyway," Gilmore remembers telling them. "This is what we should be doing."

The city of Denver reads a land acknowledgement at all of its events, acknowledging the tribes that once called the area home. But those are just words, Gilmore says, and "we're not checking a box here in Denver. We are following through."

"The bison, the buffalo are part of the land," Gilmore says. "We are returning the land to these individuals, these tribal members, and we're returning them to their homeland." That, he says, is far more important than the money the city would get from auctioning the animals off.

The transfer is part of a nationwide movement to increase Indigenous bison stewardship

Tens of millions of bison used to live in North America. By the late 1800s, however, "bison were nearly driven to extinction through uncontrolled hunting and a U.S. policy of eradication tied to intentional harm against and control of Native American Tribes," according to the Department of the Interior.

Thanks to conservation efforts, the North American bison population has rebounded to about half a million, but the majority are raised as livestock in commercial herds. Only about 30,000 live in conservation herds, according to the National Park Service.

This most recent transfer came two weeks after U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued a conservation order to restore large bison herds to Native American lands. She also announced that the department would invest $25 million in building new herds and supporting bison transfers to tribes.

The InterTribal Buffalo Council, a coalition of 80 tribes nationwide, has restored 25,000 buffalo to 65 herds across Native American land in 20 states, according to Baldes, who sits on their board. In recent years, herds have grown as federal, state and local governments, private ranches and other tribes transfer animals to reservations.

The work in Denver "sheds light on the larger issue of how important it is for the federal government to support efforts like this," Baldes says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.