Bringing the bison back to Picuris Pueblo

By:  Geoffrey Plant

Picuris Pueblo welcomed U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich for a tour last Friday (May 13) of the tribe's buffalo program, which Picuris is working to expand by adding to its current herd of 50 bison in order to produce more products, as well as add more genetic diversity to its stock.

The visit served as an opportunity for both parties to bring attention to federal legislation that seeks to create a permanent buffalo program within the U.S. Department of the Interior and help promote and develop tribal capacities to manage buffalo.

Danny Sam, Picuris Bison Program manager, said the Pueblo is among 76 member tribes represented on the Intertribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), a cohort that's grown significantly in recent years as more and more tribes seek to reestablish bison herds for cultural, nutritional and economic development reasons.

Historically a diet staple of Native American tribes, American bison were hunted to near-extinction between the colonial era and the beginning of the 20th century .

"It was an indigenous food source," Danny Sam said, explaining the significance of reintroducing bison. "Pueblo hunting parties went out there on the plains east of here, and whole families stayed out there, hunted, monitored game movement and processed the animals."

In a pasture, Sen. Heinrich and Maria Sam threw hay out of the bed of Danny Sam's pickup as he drove across the field. Bison — including several calves — galloped toward the truck. Larger and more agile than domesticated cattle, bison also mature more slowly than their bovine cousins.

"Bison take two-to-three years to grow to size," said Herd Manager Maria Sam. "Bulls don't mature sexually until two years and cows won't get pregnant until two or three years of age. We won't slaughter any of them under two" years of age.

"It's a hard business," she said.

In the back seat of Danny Sam's pickup truck was an elegant spoon carved out of bison horn, an example of one of the many products that tribes across the country produce.

"Those are some of the things we want to start marketing," Danny Sam said.

Currently, Picuris Pueblo only produces products for its tribal members.

"People can pick up meat free of charge, it's a health red meat with all the benefits of game and without the gamey taste," Maria Sam said. "I've been eating it since I was little."

Sam said the tribe is working "to bring in new genes, get new blood in the herd," Maria Sam said.

"We put in an application through the ITBC for surplus bison," Danny Sam told Heinrich, who asked if the surplus included animals removed from Yellowstone National Park, which in 2019 began transferring surplus bison to Native American tribes.

"Yeah, but tribes are barely getting some of those animals because of quarantine" protocols that make transfers a lengthy process, Danny Sam said, raising what's likely the most contentious aspect of Native American bison reintroduction programs. The free surplus bison and assistance with Native reintroduction programs are viewed by many as a form of reparations, but it also raises concerns among cattle ranchers.

"We have a lot of prejudice with the cattle ranchers. They always come along and try to put some obstacle in our way," Danny Sam said. "One of the arguments is brucellosis," a disease that — these days — mainly affects wild game and livestock, the main consequence of which is the induction of abortions in pregnant animals.

"They say, 'We don't want bison, they're going to infect our herds,' and I can understand their concerns, but basically cattle and bison aren't mingling," he said, acknowledging that animals in the Yellowstone bison herd may indeed have been exposed to brucellosis. "It would be pretty devastating, [ranchers] depend on every calf they get."

State Veterinarian Ralph Zimmerman told the Taos News that New Mexico has strict quarantine and testing rules that prevent bison with brucellosis from entering the state, therefore "it's of minimal concern."

"We have specific entry requirements for cattle or bison coming out of the Yellowstone area, or from bordering regions of the states around the park," he said, explaining that wild elk are the main vector through which both cattle and bison are exposed to the disease, which decades ago was far more prevalent.

"Except for the wildlife issue in Yellowstone, it has been eradicated," he said. "The [meat processing] plant down in Roswell slaughters a significant number of bison, and in six years of operation they've never had a case. Anything with a non-negative test would be traced back" to the ranch from which it came.

The House passed the Indian Buffalo Management Act in December, while an identical bill introduced in the Senate last October by Heinrich and U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds is awaiting further consideration by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

According to a press release, the Indian Buffalo Management Act would "provide secure, consistent funding for tribes and tribal organizations that have an established buffalo herd and management program, as well as provides the opportunity to expand the program to other interested tribes. The bill seeks to create a permanent buffalo restoration and management program within the Department of Interior to promote and develop the capacity of tribes and tribal organizations to manage buffalo and buffalo habitat; protect and enhance buffalo herds for the maximum benefit of tribes; and would include tribes in the Interior Department’s decision-making about buffalo.

“The American buffalo, or bison, is central to the culture and history of many of our Tribal nations, including a number in New Mexico,” Heinrich said, adding that the Indian Buffalo Management Act would "provide tribal communities with access to additional resources and opportunities to manage these revered animals and restore their habitat.”