Alberta reserve explores bringing back bison

Members of the Blood First Nations are studying soil, foliage and water on the reserve to see if the project is feasible

Southern Alberta’s Blood Reserve is 546 sq. miles among the thousands of square miles in which bison once roamed.

Now members of the Blood First Nation are exploring whether bison can return to their lands.

Mike Bruised Head is among those within the Kanai Ecosystem Protection Agency who are studying soil, foliage and water on the reserve, the largest in Canada, to see if it will support a bison herd.

“It’s all based on this feasibility assessment, everything. So we’re going all out. And we want to try and bring the iinnii, the buffalo, back,” said Bruised Head.

“We’ve got our own specialists that are coming up … and a few outside consultants. We’re mixing it with western science and indigenous science, indigenous knowledge.”

Bruised Head gave a presentation Feb. 19 to the Alberta Soil Sciences Workshop about the project, noting there is strong competition for land within reserve borders. Much of it is already cultivated and non-native farmers with large operations farm a lot of that.

“It’s kind of an awkward thing but it has to be said. We want to work. We want to farm our own thing but we’ve got no money,” he said. Attempts have been made in the past to have band members farm more of their own land but a “colonial effect” remains strong.

“People say ‘drunk and lazy Indians.’ We weren’t. But what else can you do when farmers here only hire 15 or 20 young people?” asked Bruised Head. “Some of them have the most racist attitudes. You’d think they’d be thankful (to farm Blood Reserve property) but they’re not.”

Returning bison to the land could help reinforce pride in the Blackfoot culture.

“Our own kids, getting interested in speaking our language and being proud of their identity and just being knowledgeable about their own culture, so the buffalo is going to do a lot of good things.”

There are at least two ancient buffalo jumps on the reserve, one of which has been used at least four different times through the ages, judging from soil and bone layers.

However, Bruised Head said there is little native grassland remaining on the Blood Reserve and there are efforts to ensure it is preserved. Bruised Head himself raises cattle and horses on native grassland within the reserve.

There is also competition for land from the oil and gas sector, which already has well sites and fracking operations on the reserve. That has raised his concern about water quality and whether it could sustain a bison herd.

“I’m praying that the water, the shallow and even deep aquifers, are not contaminated by fracking fluids,” said Bruised Head.

The Oldman and Belly rivers flow through the reserve, which also has a number of dugouts for livestock watering purposes. However, those sometimes dry up later in the season because rainfall is rarely plentiful in the region.

There are several examples of First Nations that have reintroduced bison to their lands. The closest to the Blood Reserve is near Browning, Montana, also part of the Blackfeet Nation.

Parks Canada recently moved some Wood bison to the Woodland Cree First Nation in the Peace River region. The Peepeekisis Cree Nation in Saskatchewan also has a bison herd, which it has shared with other nations as its herd has grown.

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