From California to Maine, land is being given back to Native American tribes who are committing to managing it for conservation. Some tribes are using traditional knowledge, from how to support wildlife to the use of prescribed fires, to protect their ancestral grounds.

In 1908 the U.S. government seized some 18,000 acres of land from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to create the National Bison Range in the heart of their reservation in the mountain-ringed Mission Valley of western Montana.

While the goal of protecting the remnants of America’s once-plentiful bison was worthy, for the last century the federal facility has been a symbol to the tribes here of the injustices forced upon them by the government, and they have long fought to get the bison range returned.

Last December their patience paid off: President Donald Trump signed legislation that began the process of returning the range to the Salish and Kootenai.

Now the tribes are managing the range’s bison and are also helping, through co-management, to manage bison that leave Yellowstone National Park to graze on U.S. Forest Service land. Their Native American management approach is steeped in the close, almost familial, relationship with the animal that once provided food, clothes, shelter — virtually everything their people needed.

“We treat the buffalo with less stress, and handle them with more respect,” said Tom McDonald, Fish and Wildlife Division Manager for the tribes and a tribal member. The tribes, he noted, recognize the importance of bison family groups and have allowed them to stay together. “That was a paradigm shift from what we call the ranching rodeo type mentality here, where they were storming the buffalo and stampeding animals. It was really kind of a violent, stressful affair.”

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