Bringing Back the Buffalo Was Always Important to the Rosebud Sioux. The Pandemic Made It Urgent

Stephanie Woodard June 23, 2020

Soon the Rosebud Sioux Reservation will be home to 1,500 buffalo ― the largest Native-owned bison herd in the country.

We have always believed that bring­ing back the buf­fa­lo is impor­tant, but the pan­dem­ic shows that it is urgent,” said Wiz­ipan Lit­tle Elk. We are all talk­ing about food secu­ri­ty and what the new nor­mal is going to be…We [at Rose­bud] have to get back to our roots and pro­vide an exam­ple for the rest of the world.”

Lit­tle Elk, CEO of the Rose­bud Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion (RED­CO), is refer­ring to the alarm­ing prob­lems the pan­dem­ic has exposed in the huge, cen­tral­ized sys­tem that pro­vides most Amer­i­cans with their food. Over the last sev­er­al months, numer­ous large meat pack­ers closed down after work­ers were found to be infect­ed with coro­n­avirus. Sup­ply chain prob­lems have caused many farm­ers to have to kill and dis­pose of mil­lions of pigs and chick­ens, dump milk and plow under veg­etable crops. Mean­while, spo­radic food short­ages have been report­ed around the coun­try, adding to the fear and inse­cu­ri­ty cre­at­ed by the pandemic.

With 1,500 buf­fa­lo giv­en by the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or over five years, the Rose­bud Sioux Tribe will estab­lish the Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range and take a step toward eco­nom­ic sus­tain­abil­i­ty and their own food sov­er­eign­ty — inde­pen­dent of the nation’s ail­ing food sys­tem. The tribe also hopes the herd can help reestab­lish its his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship to the buf­fa­lo. As the largest Native-Amer­i­can-owned herd, it will revi­tal­ize the tribe by sup­ply­ing school meals on the reser­va­tion, wel­com­ing vis­its from Lako­ta-lan­guage immer­sion class­es and mak­ing spir­i­tu­al­ly impor­tant items such as hides and skulls avail­able to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. The tribe also plans to build a small-scale meat-pro­cess­ing oper­a­tion to make the grass-fed, humane­ly raised meat avail­able local­ly and, to gen­er­ate rev­enue, to the pub­lic as well, said Lit­tle Elk. By improv­ing the health of the prairie ecosys­tem and its abil­i­ty to sequester car­bon and remove green­house gas­es from the atmos­phere, he said, the herd will also help fight cli­mate change.

Aspects of the project are still in the plan­ning stage. Eco-tourism pro­grams and a muse­um are under con­sid­er­a­tion, as are herd-shar­ing arrange­ments that would allow com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and orga­ni­za­tions to pur­chase rights to ani­mals and their off­spring, per­haps even­tu­al­ly start­ing their own herds. Any of these activ­i­ties, to be real­ized, must both stand on its own fis­cal­ly and con­tribute to the whole, said Project Man­ag­er Aaron Epps. At this point, Wolako­ta can’t cal­cu­late the exact cost, if any, of the var­i­ous ben­e­fits, he said. 

We can say that this project is meant to be for the good of Sican­gu [Rose­bud] peo­ple and land,” he added. We are a com­mu­ni­ty-focused orga­ni­za­tion, so we are mak­ing every effort to ensure that trib­al cit­i­zens have easy access to oppor­tu­ni­ties the herd will provide.”

Lit­tle Elk, who was an Inte­ri­or Depart­ment offi­cial dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, saw the Wolako­ta project as a mod­el for oth­er com­mu­ni­ties that wish to estab­lish their own local, var­ied and healthy sources of food. We will lean into the pan­dem­ic,” he said. We will not be intim­i­dat­ed by it. We at Rose­bud, as one small com­mu­ni­ty, will do our part to rebuild the Amer­i­can nation.” 

Those prin­ci­ples of car­ing and respon­si­bil­i­ty are appar­ent in the very word wolako­ta. A lit­er­al trans­la­tion is liv­ing the Lako­ta way of life,’” Lit­tle Elk said. In the buf­fa­lo project, we are active­ly tak­ing steps to embody the val­ues and prin­ci­ples and the very best of what it means to be Lako­ta: self-reliance, self-suf­fi­cien­cy, being a good rel­a­tive and tak­ing care of oth­ers — not just humans, but oth­er ani­mals, plants and the environment.” 

The Inte­ri­or Depart­ment views par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Wolako­ta project as an excep­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty, said Dr. Bren­dan J. Moy­na­han, Nation­al Park Ser­vice sci­ence advi­sor and chair of DOI’s Bison Work­ing Group. It is a way for the depart­ment to sup­port the rugged, shared Amer­i­can val­ues Lit­tle Elk describes, and it lets DOI reaf­firm its long­time inter­est in the ani­mal. An image of a bison appears in the department’s logo. All Amer­i­cans, all peo­ple, are cap­ti­vat­ed by the strength of bison,” Moy­na­han said. 

For DOI, a com­pelling aspect of the Wolako­ta sto­ry was the vari­ety of ways one herd will serve the Rose­bud com­mu­ni­ty. Until now, Amer­i­can bison herds have gen­er­al­ly been man­aged for one of three pri­ma­ry goals, said Lit­tle Elk: They have been com­mer­cial, for-prof­it herds, main­ly intend­ed to pro­duce meat for sale. Or they have been tribes’ small cul­tur­al­ly ori­ent­ed herds of about 50 to 500 ani­mals that pro­vide occa­sion­al meat sales. Or bison have been man­aged from a park per­spec­tive, large­ly for pub­lic enjoy­ment and edu­ca­tion, such as the ani­mals at Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park. 

The Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range does not just syn­the­size a range of Rose­bud ideas and aspi­ra­tions. Decades of work at DOI also come togeth­er in the project, accord­ing to Moy­na­han. These include years of dis­cus­sions about bison man­age­ment with park employ­ees and painstak­ing sci­en­tif­ic work to under­stand and pre­serve buf­fa­lo genet­ic diversity. 

To pro­vide ongo­ing sup­port for these efforts, DOI has just announced a 10-year depart­ment-wide Buf­fa­lo Con­ser­va­tion Ini­tia­tive. At the same time, accord­ing to Moy­na­han, there’s new­ly invig­o­rat­ed inter­est in bison among tribes and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. Wolako­ta is emblem­at­ic of this moment,” he said.

Wolako­ta is both a home­com­ing and a reunion, accord­ing to Carter Roberts, pres­i­dent and CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which is work­ing with RED­CO and the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or to devel­op the herd. The buf­fa­lo are return­ing to a land­scape and a peo­ple with which they long shared a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship, Roberts said. 

WWF involve­ment in the project includes find­ing finan­cial back­ing for land leas­ing, trans­porta­tion of the buf­fa­lo to their new home, and oth­er prac­ti­cal mat­ters, said Bison Team Lead Den­nis Jor­gensen, who works with the organization’s North­ern Great Plains Pro­gram. At Rose­bud, WWF will engage in ongo­ing envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing to ensure that Wolakota’s tract con­tin­ues to sup­port the num­ber of buf­fa­lo placed on it. In addi­tion to the Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Project, WWF works with oth­er bison-restora­tion projects, includ­ing one at the reser­va­tion of the Fort Peck Assini­boine & Sioux Tribes, head­quar­tered in Poplar, Mont. 

WWF learned a great deal from the Fort Peck project about work­ing with trib­al com­mu­ni­ties, said Jor­gensen. Buf­fa­lo are essen­tial to cul­ture, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and his­to­ry, he not­ed, but they must also be a func­tion­ing part of con­tem­po­rary life — feed­ing elders and school­child­ren, for exam­ple. Some­times, WWF found, solv­ing a need was as sim­ple as pro­vid­ing trans­porta­tion to the remote area where the herd is pas­tured so trib­al mem­bers can enjoy view­ing it. 

Nowa­days, accord­ing to Jor­gensen, a herd may be a life­saver in a very imme­di­ate way. It may help a tribe feed peo­ple who must shel­ter in place to min­i­mize Covid-19 expo­sure.” If estab­lish­ing a trib­al herd is about con­ser­va­tion only, it can end up being an eco­nom­ic bur­den, he added. It has to be sus­tain­able in a mean­ing­ful way.” 

A Bru­tal Past

Once num­ber­ing in the tens of mil­lions, buf­fa­lo carved eco­log­i­cal nich­es con­ti­nent-wide for innu­mer­able oth­er plants and ani­mals. For many indige­nous peo­ple, bison were a pri­ma­ry source of food, cloth­ing and hous­ing mate­ri­als, hunt­ing and cook­ing imple­ments, and more. Dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry, how­ev­er, the U.S. gov­ern­ment encour­aged the exter­mi­na­tion of the bison as a means to sub­due the tribes and facil­i­tate the country’s west­ern expansion.

Start­ing in the 1850s, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment cheered on mil­i­tary men, set­tlers, hunters, and oth­er new­com­ers to the Amer­i­can West as they killed bison at a rate of hun­dreds of thou­sands per year. They even shot them from train win­dows, writes Car­olyn Mer­chant in Amer­i­can Eco­log­i­cal His­to­ry: An Intro­duc­tion. An aver­age hunter took down 100 a day, she reports. After bare­ly 20 years of this killing spree, just sev­er­al hun­dred bison remained. 

Starved of a crit­i­cal resource, tribes were forced onto reser­va­tions. Native peo­ple under­stood well that the shame­ful process was inten­tion­al, the late Sioux elder Philip Lane told me in 2000, when he was 85. “[In] order to get rid of the Indi­an prob­lem,’ you had to get rid of the Indi­ans,” Lane said. The gov­ern­ment want­ed set­tlers to come in and break up that prairie ground. It was nev­er meant to be bro­ken up. It was all buf­fa­lo pasture.”

The sub­se­quent wide­spread plow­ing and agri­cul­tur­al devel­op­ment of the Plains, fol­low­ing on the heels of the sud­den exter­mi­na­tion of the great buf­fa­lo herds, was a heavy hit for the continent’s eco­log­i­cal bal­ance. Among oth­er out­comes, the Dust Bowl result­ed from try­ing to make the Plains into farmland.

Return of the Buffalo

Named the Nation­al Mam­mal of the Unit­ed States by Con­gress in 2016, today wild bison thrive by the tens of thou­sands in trib­al, fed­er­al and oth­er pub­lic herds. That is thanks to con­ser­va­tion efforts by tribes, states, the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or, the World Wildlife Fund, the Inter­Trib­al Buf­fa­lo Coun­cil and oth­er indi­vid­u­als and groups. 

To make up Rosebud’s herd, ani­mals will be cho­sen each year from among sur­plus fed­er­al­ly-owned bison — those beyond the com­fort­able car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of the grass­lands of var­i­ous fed­er­al parks, accord­ing to Moy­na­han. He saw Wind Cave Nation­al Park as one prob­a­ble source for ani­mals, a res­o­nant choice giv­en the Lako­ta leg­end recount­ing the mutu­al emer­gence of buf­fa­lo and their human kin from Wind Cave in pri­mor­dial time. 

The fed­er­al government’s genet­ic test­ing cri­te­ria assures the tribe that it will receive ani­mals that are as much as pos­si­ble like his­toric buf­fa­lo, said Project Man­ag­er Epps. The care the gov­ern­ment takes is a neces­si­ty, giv­en what Moy­na­han calls the genet­ic bot­tle­neck” that bison went through at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, when so few remained. Anoth­er pres­sure has come from the meat industry’s con­tin­u­al efforts to cross bison with cat­tle and pro­duce anoth­er type of saleable meat. 

Despite all these hur­dles, accord­ing to Moy­na­han, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has done excel­lent work in con­serv­ing bison as a species and pre­serv­ing their orig­i­nal genet­ic make­up. DOI’s new Buf­fa­lo Con­ser­va­tion Ini­tia­tive will not only care­ful­ly select ani­mals for Rose­bud, it will also swap indi­vid­ual buf­fa­lo among fed­er­al herds to sup­port their genet­ic diver­si­ty overall. 

The Inte­ri­or Depart­ment calls bison the nation’s eco­log­i­cal engi­neers.” When the first group of approx­i­mate­ly 200 arrives at Rose­bud this fall, they’re expect­ed to get right to work, ren­o­vat­ing a chunk of North Amer­i­ca — 28,000 acres of aban­doned cow pasture. 

Yuc­ca have invad­ed par­tic­u­lar­ly over-grazed por­tions of the tract. No prob­lem! said Jor­gensen. Bison are known to shove their heads into the tough, spiny plants, tear them up and devour their juicy roots, he explained. Mean­while, as they accom­plish that job, their cloven hooves con­tin­u­al­ly press the seeds of prairie grass­es and herbs into the range’s soil, an essen­tial process for help­ing these kinds of seeds sprout. (If you look into the small depres­sion of a buffalo’s hoof­print, you can iden­ti­fy lit­tle seeds ranged on its sides and see how this process gets under­way.) The end result is that native plants will reveg­e­tate the areas the buf­fa­lo have so help­ful­ly cleared.

These and oth­er bison activ­i­ties will trans­form the area. They are espe­cial­ly fond of wal­low­ing — throw­ing them­selves on their backs and wrig­gling vig­or­ous­ly. In doing so, they press even more native seeds into the ground and cre­ate shal­low pools that catch rain­wa­ter essen­tial to the plants and ani­mals of this arid land. They’ve been shown to sup­port the revival of a rare, eco­log­i­cal­ly influ­en­tial blue but­ter­fly. Native birds use their fur to line their nests.

Sci­en­tists con­tin­ue to dis­cov­er the sub­tle ways in which bison and our land­scape have co-evolved, accord­ing to Moy­na­han. “[Their] intense graz­ing caused grass­lands to green up faster, more intense­ly, and for a longer dura­tion,” wrote Dr. Chris Geremia and col­leagues in a Novem­ber 2019 paper in the Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences. By stim­u­lat­ing spring­time plant growth, bison pro­vide them­selves and oth­er ani­mals with a con­tin­u­al sup­ply of high-qual­i­ty for­age, the sci­en­tists found. It’s an exam­ple of what we’re still learn­ing about this incred­i­ble ani­mal,” said Moynahan.

Stur­dy fenc­ing mate­r­i­al arrives at Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range, on the Rose­bud Sioux Reser­va­tion, in South Dako­ta. The fence will enclose some 200 buf­fa­lo this fall and, with­in 5 years, a total of 1,500. (Pho­to by Luan Venter)
Before Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range’s new inhab­i­tants take up res­i­dence on the Rose­bud Sioux Reser­va­tion, a fence must be con­struct­ed to pre­vent them from wan­der­ing onto near­by cat­tle ranch­es. But not just any fence. It has to have smooth top and bot­tom wires, along with its mid­sec­tion barbed wires. This is not just a bison oper­a­tion, but also about re-build­ing an ecosys­tem,” Epps said. Small ani­mals will be able to slide under the bar­ri­er with­out harm, and elk and deer will be able to safe­ly jump it. 

The fence must also be able to con­tain the mas­sive buf­fa­lo. Weigh­ing in at up to 2,000 pounds and able to reach speeds of 40 miles per hour, they can chal­lenge ordi­nary bar­ri­ers, Epps said. And they are deter­mined to roam. For­tu­nate­ly, they’re also pru­dent. Before they jump a fence, they mea­sure it. Epps said he has been told by expe­ri­enced buf­fa­lo han­dlers that bison come up to a fence and check whether they can put their chin on top of it. If they can,” Epps said, over they go.” At five and one-half feet, Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range’s fence should deter even the herd’s top athletes.

Begin­ning of a Long Recovery

The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is pre­sent­ing the Unit­ed States with dev­as­tat­ing chal­lenges to health and to its abil­i­ty to make food con­sis­tent­ly avail­able around the coun­try. It is also shin­ing a harsh light on the nation’s inequities, as both death rates and eco­nom­ic pain fall most heav­i­ly on poor com­mu­ni­ties and on peo­ple of color. 

Covid-19 has widened already-exist­ing gaps in income, health care, edu­ca­tion, child pover­ty and hunger, employ­ment and hous­ing. Estab­lished by what Mar­tin Luther King called bat­tles for racial suprema­cy” that began in the 1500s, our nation still leans heav­i­ly on struc­tures of inequal­i­ty and alien­ation today.

In Lit­tle Elk’s view, the Unit­ed States is at the begin­ning of a long recov­ery. Wolako­ta Buf­fa­lo Range can show us how to make a start, each group in its own way and in its own place. We all need hope and real mod­els for action,” he said.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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