BOZEMAN — An ongoing project that aims to help Indigenous people prosper alongside buffalo at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation has received a four-year, $5 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes. The grant was awarded by the America the Beautiful Challenge program, with funding support from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Robert Magnan, director of the Fish and Game Department of the Fort Peck Tribes and grant leader, said he is thrilled with what this award will generate in improved herd and grasslands health, as well as expanded acreage and workforce for the Fort Peck Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch.
The award also supports an ongoing, comprehensive, grassroots effort to engage members of the tribes in community-building initiatives intended to rejuvenate connections with buffalo. With Magnan’s support and leadership, part of those efforts has led to the establishment of a trail on the southern end of the ranch that is home to transferred Yellowstone National Park buffalo; the new grant will expand the existing .6-mile trail to nearly 11 miles.
Montana State University is one of a number of a collaborators on the project. MSU’s portion of the grant, which will go toward trail design and buffalo and native plants science education, is approximately $1 million. Other core partners include Fort Peck Community College and Defenders of Wildlife.
The project originated through discussions by and with the Pté Group, a grassroots organizing initiative at Fort Peck that includes Magnan and a dozen other community leaders, said Elizabeth Bird, principal investigator at MSU and project development and grants specialist in the College of Education, Health and Human Development.
“When the Pté Group formed, one of the themes that came out fairly early in discussions was that they and other tribal members needed ways to connect with buffalo physically,” Bird said. “(They needed to) be in their presence, see them, smell them, hear them, pick up sloughed fur.”
A couple of years later, MSU architecture professor Michael Everts was looking for a project for his students to work on designs integrating environmental, public health and socioeconomic issues, Bird recalled. MSU colleagues soon connected him with the Pté Group, and in the spring of 2016, Everts and the first group of MSU architecture students to work on the project were able to speak with members of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, tour the area and discuss potential projects.
“Fairly early in those conversations, the idea of a trail emerged as something that would be a really good way to connect people to the land and the buffalo up there,” Bird said. With broader community input, the Pté Group named the trail Pté Bahá Ocą́gu. (In Nakoda, Pté Bahá Ocą́gu means “buffalo hills,” and in Dakota, Wamákhaškaŋškaŋ means “all that moves on the land.”)
In addition to the trail itself, the group also discussed plans to place interactive story poles – or structures that visitors can engage with in culturally meaningful ways – along the trail, and the School of Architecture organized several independent design courses for students to collaborate with community members to design the story poles. Bird said one story pole is currently in place, and four or five more will be added. The first pole is designed to catch fur that comes off buffalo when they rub against the pole, so that people can gather the fur. A second story pole will channel the wind to make tones, and people will be invited to place their hands over apertures to generate different sounds. A third story pole will feature an internal stairway that children can climb to gain a different perspective on the surrounding area. A fourth story pole may be related to stargazing, Bird said.
The group has received several smaller grants since 2018 that enabled the work to begin, resulting in trail design and environmental and cultural review, development of roughly a half-mile of completed ADA-accessible trail, along with a parking lot, toilet, picnic and bench facilities and the first two story poles. The new grant will not only lengthen the trail but also help restore the buffalo ranch grasslands, expand the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes’ capacity to manage buffalo herds through increased wildlife-friendly fencing and workforce development and expansion; fund educational programs to foster a deeper connection between tribal youth, buffalo and their culture; increase eco-tourism capacity, including dark-sky programming, led by Jonny Lee Bearcub Stiffarm; and enhance Fort Peck Community College science faculty Steven Coon’s and Joanne Stewart Kloker’s and their students’ collaborations with the ranch. The education and eco-tourism initiatives are also key Pté Group aspirations, Bird said. Stiffarm has advocated for the Pté Group aim of buffalo-related educational programming for all ages. Another partner, Kai Teague, will help lead access to augmented native plants along the trail.
An overarching goal is to strengthen ecosystem and community resilience and support tribally led conservation and restoration.
Bird, who has collaborated with partners at Fort Peck for more than a decade, is leading MSU’s involvement with the project. She will engage citizen science experts with Fort Peck partners in developing lessons for K-12 students, and she will help Everts and students in MSU’s School of Architecture deliver planning and constructability services for the trail, as well as design and fabrication of story poles.
Other MSU collaborators include Suzi Taylor, director of the Science Math Resource Center, and Jill Falcon Ramaker, assistant professor in the Department of Food Systems, Nutrition and Kinesiology and director of the Buffalo Nations Food System Initiative.
Bird hopes that by the time the grant concludes in 2027, more people – especially youth – will be involved and that infrastructure will be in place to enable the work and connections to continue.
“My hope is that by the time this grant ends it will be multi-generational and robust and those people will be able to carry the work forward,” she said. “To me the goal of this grant is to firmly establish the infrastructure for achieving the intentions of the Pté Group. If we can establish strong infrastructure and a set of lessons for and connections to (Fort Peck Community College) and (local) schools, that will go a long way.”
Turnbull, co-chair of the Pté Group and key partner for the grant, said that all the proposed work “helps ensure that our wonderful, restored Yellowstone buffalo herd also advances the cultural, physical and economic health of our Fort Peck communities.”