Rare White Buffalo Calf Born in Yellowstone, Signifying Hope and Renewal for Native Tribes

Rare White Buffalo Calf Born in Yellowstone, Signifying Hope and Renewal for Native Tribes

With cream-colored fur and jet-black eyes, one of the smallest specimens of America’s largest native animal, a white buffalo calf, stumbled into the spotlight on shaky legs. Advocates hope the June birth of this exceedingly rare calf will spark new momentum for the decades-long effort to revive the species in America's Great Plains.

Many tribes regard a white bison birth as a sacred omen signaling change. The calf's birth in the last wild buffalo herd in North America holds significant cultural symbolism. This herd is entering a new phase, with indigenous communities increasingly taking on the stewardship of the species, pushing to grow bison populations. The American buffalo, or bison, once numbered in the tens of millions but were driven to near extinction in the 1800s. Today, the only wild herd in the U.S. consists of about 5,000 animals.

Tribes and bison advocates see potential as Yellowstone, America’s first national park and the home of the white calf, considers expanding the herd’s size for the first time in decades. The white calf adds spiritual significance to the advocates' efforts, challenging a long-standing status quo where government policies have often prioritized beef ranching over native tribes' beliefs.

On June 4, Yellowstone photography guide Jordan Creech spotted the newborn white buffalo calf taking its first steps in Lamar Valley. Bison calves can walk within two minutes of birth and run alongside their herd within seven minutes. Erin Braaten, a photographer of Native American descent, also witnessed the calf's first moments.

For 2,000 years, the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda tribes have told the story of a woman who appeared during a time of need, offering sacred gifts and transforming into a white buffalo calf before departing. Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota Tribe, compares the white calf’s return to the second coming of Christ, indicating a time when "everything is sickly and not good."

On June 26, over 500 supporters, representing nearly a dozen tribes, celebrated the white calf's birth in West Yellowstone. The calf was named Wakan Gli, meaning Sacred Returns in Lakota. National Park rangers confirmed the birth, stating it may reflect a natural genetic legacy preserved in Yellowstone’s bison, highlighting its significance for American Indians.

The Yellowstone bison are the only wild herd in the U.S. and among the last genetically pure bison. The park often reaches its legal capacity of 5,000 bison. Since 2019, the National Park Service has transferred 414 healthy bison from Yellowstone to 26 tribes in 12 states through the Bison Conservation Transfer Program. The Intertribal Buffalo Council, comprising 83 tribes, has also relocated 25,000 bison to 65 herds on tribal lands in 22 states since 1992.

Jason Baldes, vice-president of the council and a member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, highlights the intertwined history of buffalo and native people. Returning buffalo to tribes marks a significant shift in federal policy, as the government once sought to eradicate them to deprive tribes of resources.

The National Park Service has completed an environmental impact study proposing to increase Yellowstone's herd size from 5,000 to 6,000, with a potential capacity of 10,000. This marks the first proposed increase in 24 years. The herd's growth is significant, given that up to 60 million buffalo were killed during the American frontier expansion, leaving no more than 1,000 in the wild by the 20th century.

Ranchers and Montana's Republican governor oppose the expansion, fearing brucellosis, a disease carried by about 60% of Yellowstone bison, could infect beef herds and reduce profits. The Montana Stockgrowers Association warns that the new policy could lead to an exponential growth in bison numbers, although elk, which also transfer brucellosis, do not face the same restrictions as bison.

Mike Mease of the Buffalo Field Campaign describes the debate as part of the old range wars over competition for grass. Yellowstone officials acknowledge the complexity of bison management, noting it is the most challenging wildlife issue in the park.

For tribes, the birth of the white calf from Yellowstone’s herd underscores the need for greater support for bison. Chief Looking Horse believes this event signals a message from Mother Earth through the animal nation.

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