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Bison stop to look back after they were released Thursday on the Wind River Indian Reservation near Morton. The animals were reintroduced to the reservation through a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. Alan Rogers, Casper Star-Tribune

WIND RIVER RESERVATION – After more than 40 years of work and perseverance, Dick Baldes could hardly believe the day had finally come.

Ten bison – mere brown blobs on the horizon – moved about the western Wyoming prairie beneath the snowy peaks of the Wind River Range for the first time in more than 130 years.

“It’s hard to believe it’s real,” said Baldes, a retired Fish and Wildlife employee who began the effort to bring the bison to the reservation in the 1970s.

“Finally.”

Minutes earlier, members of the West’s newest bison herd loped onto their ancestral homeland to the tune of an Eastern Shoshone song and the steady beat of handheld drums. The crowd cheered as the animals cavorted freely across the field and down a two-track road, kicking up their heels as they ran.

“It’s like they know they’re home,” said Margery Torrey, a Lander sculptor who worked with the tribe to raise money for the bison’s return.

The sound of hooves on the prairie Thursday was the culmination of decades of work from the tribe, along with partner agencies and organizations.

Leaders raised money, filled out endless paperwork, negotiated tribal and state politics and raised awareness of the importance of bison to the tribe’s way of life.

“This has been one of the hopes and dreams for us for many years,” said Clint Wagon, a member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council.

After Baldes retired from the fish and wildlife service, his son, Jason, took up his mission. Jason Baldes studied bison reintroduction while working on his undergraduate and master’s degrees and then brought his experience home to the reservation as the Eastern Shoshone’s bison representative.

Even after all the papers were signed and the deal was done, Jason Baldes struggled to believe the bison’s return was really happening until their hooves struck Wyoming soil. The bison arrived about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday after more than 20 hours on the road from the wildlife refuge in Iowa where they had previously lived.

When they came off the trailer – spunky after the long ride – Jason Baldes could finally believe it. All of his hard work, and that of his father, had finally paid off.

“You’re home,” he told them.

Two days later, a crowd arrived to welcome the new herd. Before their release Thursday, dozens of people peered through thick wood slats at the bison moving restlessly in their pen, as if they were nervous about the part in history they were poised to take.

Down the two-track road, about 200 people gathered in the warm November sun to celebrate. Hearty laughs pealed from underneath wide-brimmed cowboy hats while giggling school kids clutched colorful blankets around their shoulders.

The tribe and the federation hope that the new Wind River herd will grow to about 1,000 bison during the next decade. The reservation has about 750,000 acres of prime bison habitat – far more than the 550,000 acres available to the 3,500 bison in Yellowstone National Park. The tribe previously reintroduced pronghorn and bighorn sheep to the reservation after the animals had been wiped out by hunting.

“I’m waiting for the day when we can see them up there,” Dick Baldes said, gesturing to the hills and Wind River Mountains in front of him. “I want to see them everywhere.”

In the 1700s, more than 30 million bison wandered North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. White settlers hunted the bison at unprecedented rates as they moved west, killing the animals for their skins while simultaneously pushing them from their habitat. During 1872 and 1873, the wildlife service estimates 5,000 bison were killed every day.

By 1884, there were about 325 bison left.

“It is one of the greatest wildlife genocides on the Earth,” Colin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said Thursday.

There are now only three free-ranging buffalo herds in the U.S. – one in Yellowstone National Park and two in southern Utah, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

The extermination of the buffalo also forced Native people from their homelands and onto reservations when their source of food and many other supplies was depleted.

“What happened to the buffalo similarly happened to us,” Jason Baldes wrote in a blog post. “As their numbers declined, buffalo were forced into former pockets of their territory, just as the tribes were pushed onto reservations.”

The federal government’s contribution to the bison release was an opportunity to start making up for those cruelties, said Matt Hogan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy regional director. The federation partnered with northeastern Montana tribes for a similar release of 63 bison on tribal lands in March 2012.

“It hasn’t always been a proud history,” Hogan said. “There have been times the U.S. government stood on the wrong side of this issue. We’re humbled to stand with you on the right side now.”

Not only will the bison’s return repair an ecosystem that has been missing a major component, but it will also help the Eastern Shoshone reconnect with the animal that was so integral to tribal life.

More than a source of food and supplies, the bison was necessary for many of the tribe’s ceremonies, like the Sun Dance and sweat lodges, Jason Baldes said. Previously, the tribe had to buy a bison from a ranch and haul it here. As the herd grows in the coming years, tribal members will be able to hunt their own bison, as their ancestors did generations before.

It’s one of Dick Baldes’ dreams to take his grandchildren on a buffalo hunt before he dies. He hopes the next generation will witness the bison’s homecoming and become advocates for the species, he said, looking over the prairie at the small herd.

“It’s an inheritance,” he said.

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