Cross Cultural Conservation

Father and son Richard and Jason Baldes Look at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as Conservationists and as Eastern Shoshone, A Tribe Whose Ancestry Spans 13,000 Years in the Tetons.

Cross Cultural Conservation

Father and son Richard and Jason Baldes Look at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as Conservationists and as Eastern Shoshone, A Tribe Whose Ancestry Spans 13,000 Years in the Tetons.  

By Molly Loomis  //  Photography by AMBER BAESLER

The Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s bison graze on the Wind River Indian Reservation. After three calves were born in 2018, the herd is up to 23 animals.

THE GRAND TETON. Pierre’s Hole. Moran. Gros Ventre. Jackson. With the exception of Teewinot mountain, which means “many peaks” in the Shoshone language, the presence and influence of Native Americans on the current local landscape is largely relegated to art galleries, and antique and souvenir shops. But the territories of the Bannock and Shoshone—Shoshone includes interrelated bands like the Northern, Eastern, and Mountain Shoshone—once encompassed a vast area including both Jackson Hole and Teton Valley. 

Richard Baldes is a member of the Eastern Shoshone—pronounced show-SHOW-knee—Tribe and a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service project leader.

In 1863, on the heels of the 1862 Homestead Act and the Bear River Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers attacked a village of Shoshone and killed as many as 384 men, women, and children—one of the highest recorded casualty counts of all the American Indian Wars—the Fort Bridger Treaty was signed. It was part of the U.S. government’s effort to clear a safe path for white settlers heading west and forced the Bannock and Northern Shoshone tribes south from their traditional lands and onto the Fort Hall Reservation (which is between today’s Idaho Falls and Pocatello, Idaho). It relocated the Eastern Shoshone to a reservation that totaled approximately 44,672,000 acres across Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Montana—at least until 1868, when the government reduced the Eastern Shoshone’s territory to a total of about 3 million acres. 

The remnants of circular log dwellings, called wickiups, and artifacts such as projectile points, knives, and even ladles made of sheep horns, can still be found in the region. Jenny Lake was a site for traditional Shoshone Sun Dances, while the 13,285-foot Enclosure, a pinnacle just to the west of the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park, is thought by some to have been a site for vision quests, fasting, and ceremonies. Evidence from recent archaeological studies shows that the region was not simply a seasonal stopping point for tribes (as was long thought), but instead a base for much of the year until the harsh winter hit. At least until the arrival of white explorers and homesteaders.

A decade later, rather than grant the Northern Arapaho their own reservation, the U.S. government relocated that tribe onto the Eastern Shoshone’s Wind River Indian Reservation (WRIR). This was done to punish the Northern Arapaho for being “hostiles” and despite the fact the two tribes were traditional enemies. Today about 26,000 Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone live on the WRIR’s 2,222,720 acres and “we only have a handful of elders that speak the language and have the traditional worldview, that in a sense tells us how to live with the land, live with the animals. We’re trying to hold onto those things, revitalize them,” says Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone who grew up on the WRIR, graduated from Montana State University with a master’s degree in land resource sciences in 2016, and today consults for organizations like the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Conservation Corp, and the Wind River Foundation. (He has also served as the director of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center.)

“Buffalo were life’s commissary: our food, clothing, shelter and are still essential to our ceremonies, especially our Sun Dance and sweat ceremonies. If we as tribes have the ability to do so, why wouldn’t we give the utmost respect to that animal?”

— Jason Baldes

IN ADDITION TO its human residents, the WRIR is also home to moose, whitetail and mule deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and, as of November 2016, bison, known as buffalo to Native American people. It is one of the few reservations in the country to have all of the ungulate species, and predators, that lived on it prior to Lewis and Clark’s 1803 Corps of Discovery expedition, living on it today. This is no accident, and it’s Jason’s father, Richard Baldes, who can take credit—not that he ever would.

Born on the reservation in 1941 to a cement mixer and a housekeeper, Richard left the reservation to pursue wildlife management at the University of Wyoming, then a master’s degree in fisheries at Colorado State University. Eventually, he returned home to work in the unusual role of project leader, not for a tribal entity, but for the federal government’s Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Richard worked for the USFWS for 27 years, finally retiring in 1996. “My dad worked for many years when things were pretty difficult during the transition from termination to self-determination in the early 1950s through late ’60s when tribes were given a lot more autonomy in dictating our own affairs, whether in law enforcement, fish and wildlife management, or healthcare,” Jason says. 

Richard Baldes walks through his backyard in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

During his career at USFWS, Richard was a unique bridge between different worlds and went above and beyond his official duties by serving on boards of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) conservation/environment groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Wyoming Outdoor Council, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and National Wildlife Federation. He was often the only Native American on these boards, and was the first Native American member of the National Wildlife Federation’s board of directors. 

Richard tackled several highly controversial issues, including water rights and a game code. The former was a fight in which non-Native farmers from multiple water districts requested Baldes’ removal—by nothing less than Congressional action—from his position. Four times. Richard says, “If I hadn’t had some good friends who understood what we were doing for the fish, wildlife, and tribal management policies, I’d been going down the road kicking rocks.”

The elder Baldes’ work on a game code that would regulate hunting to sustain wildlife populations on the reservation wasn’t any more popular. At that time—the early 1980s—pronghorn and bighorn sheep had been extirpated from the reservation, and elk, moose, and even deer, were in decline. In 1984, Richard got hunting seasons set and established limits on the number of animals that tribal members could harvest. “That was highly, highly controversial,” Jason says. “Imagine telling Native Americans that they can no longer hunt on their own lands; that was a very, very hard thing to accomplish.”

Today, populations of bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and the other species that had been in decline are recovering. “Now after all these years [tribal members] see the wildlife and that what we predicted would happen with good, sound management practices has happened,” Richard says. “A lot of opponents, they won’t come up to me and say it, but they tell Jason and others that, ‘[the game code] was a good thing; we’re glad your dad did that.’ But at the time, they thought I was divesting their hunting rights away from them.”

IT IS ENTIRELY coincidental that the Wind River Indian Reservation is nearly identical in size to Yellowstone National Park (2,219,789 acres), which is less than 70 miles to the northwest as the crow flies. On the eastern flank of the Wind River Mountains, the reservation, like Jackson Hole, is part of the 16 million- to 22 million-acre (depending on who’s counting) GYE, one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth and home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the Lower 48 states. With the exception of the 3.4-million-acre Bridger-Teton National Forest and the 2.4-million-acre Shoshone National Forest, the Wind River Reservation is the largest parcel of land within the ecosystem. 

But, even though there is no doubt the Wind River Reservation is a key component of the GYE and that there is currently an increasing emphasis on protecting the GYE, “Most of the time tribal input isn’t sought,” Jason says. “For far too long tribes have been left out of the conversations.” Richard says that when he was first on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wind River, a 185-mile-long river that flows through the reservation and eventually joins the Yellowstone River, was never mentioned as part of the ecosystem. “Still today most people forget that,” he says. (The Wind River’s headwaters are near Togwotee Pass.  Close to Thermopolis, Wyoming, the river’s name changes to the Bighorn River, and on the Wyoming/Montana border, it is the star of the 120,000-acre Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.)

Today, populations of bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and the other species that had been in decline on the Wind River Indian Reservation are recovering, thanks to the controversial game code Richard Baldes instituted in the 1980s. “What we predicted would happen with good, sound management practices has happened.”

—Richard Baldes

Jason says, “an invitation to the table should have been made 50 years ago when we had the people that had that knowledge [of how to live with the land and animals], the cultural morals, and values to guide us in the right way. We have tribal members now that would rather look at cows on the landscape than buffalo and rather divert the water for agriculture than keep it in the river for fish.”

AS PASSIONATE AS Jason is today about preserving and protecting wildlife on the reservation and in the GYE, that wasn’t always the case. It was in 1997 (when Jason was 18), after returning from a trip to East Africa with his father, that “I had a newfound appreciation of my home, culture, people, and land base,” Jason says. On this trip, Jason and his father visited parks and reserves including Amboseli, Tarangire, Maasai Mara, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. It was his experience in the Serengeti, that Jason says was “monumental. We drove for one hundred or so miles one day and all you could see around you, in any direction, was wildebeest.” 

The Serengeti’s wildebeest migration is about 1.5 million animals, and today is the largest ungulate migration in the world. “But what was more influential was the fact that the [Serengeti’s wildebeest population] is less than 5 percent of what [the U.S.] buffalo population was two hundred years ago. That was unfathomable. It just blew us away. We had our own Serengeti here. We destroyed it. And largely it was destroyed as a means to kill off a Native American food source. The reason the Americas are the way they are today is because they want[ed] to annihilate our wildlife, our food source and take our land.” 

Jason says that, prior to this trip to Africa, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” Returning home, he had a goal: Bison reintroduction and restoration—something he and his father had talked about for years—became the object of his undergraduate and graduate degrees. As an undergraduate, Jason worked closely with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Dr. Peter Gogan, a bison specialist, to develop a draft management plan for what a bison program on the WRIR could look like. Then he got fellowships from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to fund his graduate work on the ecological role of bison, tribal policy, and the cultural importance to foods, tools, and medicines in ecosystems where bison are established.

“Throughout our ancestry we have depended entirely at times on buffalo,” Jason says. “They were life’s commissary: our food, clothing, shelter and are still essential to our ceremonies, especially our Sun Dance and sweat ceremonies. If we as tribes have the ability to do so, why wouldn’t we give the utmost respect to that animal? And by doing so, you not only heal history, you heal the atrocities of the past. We heal our people from those things like genocide, the reservation era, the boarding school era. And we heal by a cultural revitalization by being able to use the buffalo, use the parts, and eat it again, which is vital to our diet.” 

A bison from the tribal herd grazes on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The bison are currently fenced in, but Jason Baldes hopes to one day have the herd on an open range.

In November 2016, 10 bison from the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Iowa were transplanted to the WRIR and put in a 300-acre pasture near Morton, Wyoming. Both Jason and Richard, along with about 250 other people, were there for their release. On May 3, 2017, Jason, accompanied by journalist Angus Thuermer, Jr. (read a profile of him on pg. 32) saw the first bison calf born to the Shoshone tribe on the reservation in more than 130 years. 

The Boy-Zhan-Bi-Den (buffalo return) movement now has twenty-three bison on the reservation, all of which are genetically reputable. (Over time, because their numbers dipped to as low as 100—from as many as 60 million in 1840—many bison in private herds interbred with cattle; as far as is known, the ancestors of these bison did not.) Jason says, “My hope is that five, ten years from now there will be an established population where buffalo are allowed to be buffalo. They can move up in the mountains. They can move down. They can go where the water is and they exist just like other wildlife does. They would eventually grow in size and population to the point where we could adequately issue tags so that we would have a draw, just like we do our other wildlife, like moose and bighorn sheep and trophy deer.”

Jason says that a sustainable bison population on the reservation would be about one thousand animals. Richard points out the uniqueness of the reservation’s bison: “There’s a million bison in the United States today, but less than 10,000 of those exist under natural environmental factors, like predation and climate. We not only have the opportunity to manage buffalo for cultural revitalization and management under the game code as wildlife, but we also have the opportunity to participate in the conservation of the species because we have buffalo with Yellowstone genetics. Less than five [bison] populations in the U.S. have pure Yellowstone genetics and are managed with natural environmental conditions [that allow] them to be buffalo. Most of the buffalo in the U.S. today are manipulated by man—produced for consumption and managed like cattle.”

Richard and Jason would both love to see non-Natives be involved with the reservation, and for the reservation to have a voice in the conservation topics affecting the whole GYE. “Within our own tribal government we don’t have an entity that oversees [air and water and wildlife and fisheries], let alone an organization that’s a non-profit outside of tribal government. It comes back to not having enough people and qualified people that can manage an organization like that,” says Jason. “So we don’t have an entity per se that people could support. It is difficult to say, ‘Yeah, here’s how you can help’ but at the same time say, ‘Yeah, we want that help.’ ”  JH

Bison graze and wallow on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Wallowing—rolling in the dirt—is a common behavior of bison that is important to the prairie ecosystem because it creates divets in the soil for water to accumulate.

The Country’s first Wilderness Area

The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The act was revolutionary in creating a formal mechanism in designating wilderness and, even more so, for defining wilderness.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” —Wilderness Act of 1964

In the 1930s though, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had determined—sometimes without tribal consultation—that 16 tribally owned areas throughout the West would be “roadless.” The definition of “roadless” was very similar to how wilderness was defined 26 years later. In 1938, the WRIR worked with the federal government to establish the Wind River Reservation Roadless Area. 

When the Wilderness Act was initially being discussed, it was proposed that these Native American roadless areas be included in the new national system of Wildernesses protected for perpetuity. But Native Americans successfully lobbied Congress to drop this proposal from the act and finally give the dozen tribes that had had roadless areas forced upon them the sovereignty to decide what to do with them: keep them roadless, develop them, or do something in between. 

Perhaps because it was a tribal decision in the first place, the Wind River Reservation Roadless Area was the only one of the 16 kept as roadless. Today it is the oldest roadless conservation area in the nation. “The tribes and the tribal government recognized the importance of doing so in order to have sustainable wildlife populations down the road,” Jason says. The WRIR Roadless Area includes 180,387 acres that encompass more than 200 alpine lakes, glaciers, mountains, several hundred miles of rivers and streams, and forested foothills. 

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