On the Osage Nation Ranch just outside of Pawhuska, nearly 200 bison are roaming free on 3,000 acres of the tribe's ancestral land.
Osage Nation started building its herd about four years ago with bison donated from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Colorado State University — all with a 100-percent pure American Bison bloodline, meaning they have no trace of cattle genetics.
This year the tribe added six more pure American Bison to its herd after teaming up with the Bronx Zoo in New York, which has started a breeding program to help with bison restoration.
“There's some thought that pure bison may be better adapted to withstand climate extremes, deep snow and so what we wanted to do in the Bronx is create as healthy a bison as possible to really aid in these restoration programs; not only to increase gene diversity, but to increase the percentage of pure bison in the animals,” said the zoo’s general curator and associate director, Dr. Patrick Thomas.
Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said the return of American Bison to Osage land is significant not only because they're a link to the past, but also because the American Bison are a symbol of the Osage Nation's future.
“I really believe it's going to translate to strengthening the Osage People,” said Standing Bear.
Bison have great cultural and spiritual importance to the Osage People. They were a source of food and strength for decades, until they were hunted to near extinction in the late 1860s.
“Bison to me means restoration. Restoration of people, restoration of culture, restoration of land," said Osage Nation Department of Natural Resources Business Development Specialist, Jason George. “There hasn't been bison on that land in probably hundreds of years so this is historic. Everything that we're doing now is historic for our people and there's no feeling like that.”
George said the tribe partnered with the Bronx Zoo at the beginning of the pandemic and started planning to add to the tribe’s herd.
“We started a dialogue over zoom like everyone else was doing working from home and struck up a friendship and a partnership that was beneficial for the both of us,” said George.
The Bronx Zoo has a long, storied history with the animals. It played a pivotal role in bringing the American Bison back from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th Century.
“As early as 1907, the Bronx Zoo was breeding bison for reintroduction. In fact, the very first reintroduction took place here in Oklahoma when we sent 15 bison to the Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge,” said Dr. Thomas.
Dr. Thomas said that breeding program ended in 1935, but 10 years ago the zoo decided start another one. Again with the goal of re-establishing pure American Bison in areas they once called home.
“There aren't all that many opportunities for zoos to engage in real reintroduction programs and this is a concrete example of how zoos can work to actually be part of a conservation effort, “ said Thomas. “And for the prairie it's a benefit because prairies have evolved to have bison grazing on them, so to have bison again back on Osage Nation land doing what bison do helps the prairie ecosystem.”
After a decade of building up its breeding program, the Bronx Zoo was ready to ship off its first group of bison. And just like in 1907, the bison were bound for Oklahoma.
Workers from the zoo loaded six bison to make the 14-hundred mile journey from New York to Oklahoma.
The three cows and three bulls made it to the prairie on a cold day in January. They successfully joined the rest of the Osage herd in May, continuing the conservation work the zoo started more than a century ago.
“To be able to send a group of bison to the Osage Nation, same state where we initially reintroduced bison is really special,” Thomas said. “The Osage Nation has shown a real commitment to not just only having bison on their land, but having a viable herd of bison of conservation importance and have obviously made a great commitment to set aside vast tracks of land and it's just really heartwarming to see our bison be part of their program.”
Osage Nation said the donated bison on the ranch are not for slaughter. They are for conservation purposes and to help bolster genetic identity in the tribe’s herd.
George said the tribe is already planning to add another group of bison from The Bronx Zoo, possibly this fall.
“I told them we'd take as many as they're willing to send us. We love being partners with them. They're great, they're a great organization,” George said.
Dr. Thomas said he expects the cows brought over from the Bronx Zoo will have calves in the coming weeks.