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Denver's local indigenous groups are helping manage its bison herds

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A story of cooperation now in Denver. About 60 bison roam in two of the city's mountain parks. Denver also has special park grounds set aside for the use of local Indigenous groups. A few years ago, those groups started working with the city to manage the bison, which are culturally and spiritually important to many tribes. Here's Colorado Public Radio's Isaac Vargas.

ISAAC VARGAS, BYLINE: Over the last 10 to 15 years, William Tall Bull, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho, has helped manage the ceremonial grounds. He knew Denver Parks managed bison herds, but...

WILLIAM TALL BULL: The Denver mountain parks never worked with the Denver Indian community in terms of harvesting a bison or actually inviting us to the table, you know, with their bison program.

VARGAS: Tall Bull started talking to Scott Gilmore with Denver Parks and Recreation about that.

TALL BULL: So over the years, we've been building up that relationship by actually just, you know, going out for coffee, going to get something to drink, going to get some lunch - creating a relationship, right?

VARGAS: Historically, when the bison herd numbers started to grow too big, the city would auction animals to the highest bidder. But a few years ago, that changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BISON ENTERING TRAILER)

VARGAS: About a dozen big, woolly, brown bison crash into each other and down a wooded fenced corridor into a white steel trailer. Now, when Denver has more bison than its parks can support, it sends them to tribal communities. These 29 are headed up I-25 to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Denver has been doing this for three years now. Scott Gilmore, who was in on those early bison talks with William Tall Bull years ago, is happy they worked something out.

SCOTT GILMORE: For a city, this is - I don't know of any other city that can do this. Who owns bison? You can't do something that you don't have. The federal government has been trying to do this for a long time. But as a city, we have a lot more flexibility.

VARGAS: It took the National Park Service years to start shipping bison it didn't need to tribal governments. Yellowstone National Park bison that used to be slaughtered are now sent to Native communities.

GILMORE: The buffalo are part of the land. And so this action allows us to honor that land acknowledgement with action, not just with words.

VARGAS: Danielle SeeWalker with the American Indian Commission came to see the bison off. She says it's important for tribes to have their own bison herds. She calls them relatives to the Indigenous communities that once lived in close harmony for generations.

DANIELLE SEEWALKER: The Lakota people are - we're a buffalo nation. We consider them our relatives, our four-legged relatives. Wherever they went is where we went. And so they're really centric to our culture and our identity and our belief systems.

VARGAS: Since 2021, Denver has transferred a total of 85 buffalo to tribes, including the Arapaho, Shoshone and Cheyenne. William Tall Bull, who manages the Indigenous ceremonial grounds inside Denver's Daniels Park, says he thinks transfers like these will have a ripple effect.

TALL BULL: Bringing back bison to our culture, to our tradition, back to Native people where they belong. So what we're doing here today - it's affecting other Native people, as well. It's bridging the educational gap for the non-Native community.

VARGAS: The city of Denver has signed an agreement with local Indigenous groups to continue transferring bison to native communities through at least 2030.

For NPR News, I'm Isaac Vargas in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Isaac Vargas