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MSU graduate recognized for work in returning buffalo to Wind River Reservation

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Jason Baldes is an MSU graduate who came to the university knowing he wanted to study the science necessary to help return wild buffalo to Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham Jason Baldes is an MSU graduate who came to the university knowing he wanted to study the science necessary to help return wild buffalo to Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

A Montana State University graduate’s successful efforts to bring buffalo back to Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation has earned him a place in the national news, including the cover of a national research magazine.

Jason Baldes, the buffalo representative for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in land resources and environmental sciences from MSU. He is featured on the cover of the fall issue of Winds of Change magazine. The magazine is published by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and supports Native people in science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields.

Baldes also figured prominently in recent news about a second small herd of 10 buffalo (he prefers “buffalo” to the scientific term “bison”) delivered last weekend to Fort Washakie, Wyoming, from the National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana. The Montana buffalo join a small herd sent last fall from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. One of the 10 buffalo sent last year calved this spring, so there are now 21 genetically pure wild buffalo in a 300-acre pasture near the Pilot Butte Reservoir in the center of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The return of the buffalo following a 131-year absence came after more than 15 years of work by Baldes and more than 40 years of effort by his father, Richard Baldes. The younger Baldes calls the return of the buffalo “a blessing.”

“When the buffalo first came (last year) it was pretty cool,” Baldes said. “More than 300 people, including school kids and elders, came to the ceremony.” The buffalo’s release was celebrated by both traditional tribal drummers and tech-savvy school children recording the event on iPads held aloft.

film of the buffalo’s return also has an MSU connection. It was made by Colin Ruggiero, a Missoula filmmaker who is a 2005 graduate of MSU’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking MFA program in the College of Arts and Architecture.

Baldes emphasized that the successful return of the buffalo has been a collaborative effort. Among those involved was Tom Dougherty, adviser to the president of the National Wildlife Federation. The U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service was also involved.

While the return of the buffalo has been celebrated nationwide, the issue is still highly political, Baldes said. While the Shoshone share the 2.2 million-acre reservation (the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined) with the Northern Arapaho Tribe, the Arapaho did not participate in the return, although they offered encouragement. Water rights, land rights and the political divides between non-tribal and tribal land owners and the demands of agricultural and mineral interests all add complexity to the issue, Baldes said.

“(Reintroduction of buffalo) is still a hard sell in some realms,” Baldes said. “We know it will be a long road and that we must be patient and diligent.” He said his goal is that the buffalo herd will grow and will be managed as a wildlife species, as opposed to livestock. He said with the buffalo, the tribe can say that it manages all seven native species of ungulates, including 10,000 elk and 7,000 pronghorn.

“Very few reservations can say that,” he said.

Baldes said his work at MSU under mentor Cliff Montagne, professor emeritus in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture, helped equip him for his responsibilities. An artist who grew up working in bronze sculpture, painting, drawing and jewelry making, particularly beadwork, Baldes started his college education majoring in art at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, then transferred to Colorado State University. He received an associate’s degree from Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colorado, and attended Central Wyoming College in Riverton.

But his passion for buffalo changed his course. When he was growing up, he took a trip to Africa, where he viewed the migration of a million wildebeests. That resonated with him. He marveled that as large as that migration is, the migration of American buffalo was larger. “We had three times that number in buffalo,” Baldes said. “We had our own Serengeti before the buffalo were wiped out.”

Baldes said he knew he wanted to help with his father’s efforts to return buffalo to the tribe. And, he knew he would need a science education to do that. He learned about MSU’s science emphasis from Theresa Cohn, then an MSU graduate student who worked in natural science education at Wyoming Indian High School, and Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer, who then ran summer camps for youth on the reservation with the Native Waters program. She is now the executive director of the Bozeman-based Hopa Mountain nonprofit.

“Bonnie encouraged me to attend MSU, and I liked the school right away because lot of Native students go there – there are 14 tribes and seven reservations in Montana,” Baldes said. “That was appealing to me. I wanted to be part of university system that honored and respected a Native presence.”

In addition to Montagne, Baldes was mentored by Peter Gogan, the bison specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey, who Baldes said “is the foremost in the field in understanding genetics and management in the bison in Yellowstone.” Baldes’ undergraduate work included a draft bison management plan. The work helped Baldes receive the Science to Achieve Results Graduate Fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency while he was earning his master’s degree. He was the first MSU graduate student to receive the STAR award since 1995.

Montagne said he also had some important takeaways from mentoring Baldes.

“I learned from Jason the technique of keeping one’s eye on the ball while being open to additional viewpoints and techniques to reach the goal,” Montagne said. “His pathway shows the importance of blending science, politics and economics with traditional views. His approach is a gift for all of us.”

Baldes said he is happy to have an education that is applicable to the needs of his home community.

“Tools to return to home and do work you want to do are important when going to university as a Native student,” Baldes said. “Too often, you go to university and become the person the university wants you to be. To be able to be grounded and do work in a Native community, that’s important.”

Cliff Montagne, montagne@montana.edu

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