A bison in the holding
pen © Clay Bolt/WWF.
- The Sicangu Lakota Oyate, the Native nation living on the
Rosebud Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota,
released 100 American bison onto part of an 11,300-hectare (28,000-acre)
- The project is a collaboration between the Sicangu Oyate's
economic arm, REDCO, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and
- Over the next five years, the leaders of the Wolakota Buffalo
Range project hope to expand the herd to 1,500 buffalo, which
would make it the largest owned by a Native nation.
The bison circled four times around the holding pen, before the
lead animals took them into the 3,400-hectare (8,500-acre) pasture,
their new home on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in the U.S. state
of South Dakota. The thunder of 400 hooves as they crossed through
the gate gave way to the whir of cameras and ululations from the
crowd, perhaps 20 people gathered to see the return of the bison.
Out in their new pasture, the animals loped, moving in unison as
if one organism. Then, they slowed and wheeled to the left against
a backdrop of a few lonely trees on a blanket of tan grass stretching
to distant hills. They seem to fit into the landscape, as if they'd
always been there and always would be.
It was land where their ancestors had run for thousands of years,
where they had been central to the success of the Great Plains'
nations, anchoring their cultures, prescribing their movements and
filling their bellies.
"Bringing them home. That's what it meant," said Monica Terkildsen,
a member of the Oglala Lakota and WWF's tribal liaison on the neighboring
Pine Ridge Reservation, who was at the Oct. 30 release.
"You just have a peaceful feeling," Terkildsen said. "That means
that you don't have to worry about hunger, you don't have to worry
about inadequate housing
all these worries that come with
oppression and poverty."
At their peak, an estimated 30 million bison grazed North America's
Great Plains, the region that drapes the center of the continent,
from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. They were a keystone
species in the vast ecosystem and a foundational food source for
more than a dozen Native American nations living there. But that
was before a concerted campaign, backed by the U.S. government,
to eliminate the bison in the mid- to late 1800s all but succeeded
a genocidal swipe aimed at bringing these largely nomadic
cultures to heel and opening up the West to Euro-American expansion,
farming and settlement. By 1889, only about 1,000 bison remained,
many in zoos or privately owned herds, according to the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service.
The disappearance of North America's largest land animal forever
changed the makeup of these societies and the landscape itself.
Farms and fenced-off ranches subsumed what had seemed to be a limitless
prairie. Game disappeared, and with it the nomadic way of life of
the Lakota (also known as the Teton Sioux) and other Native nations.
By the turn of the century, most of the Plains Nations had been
forced onto reservation land, into a foreign and sedentary way of
life that decimated these societies. Today, nearly 150 years after
the "Indian Wars" of the late 19th century, poverty, unemployment,
drug use, depression and suicide still hamper reservation communities
at rates much higher than in the broader U.S. population.
But with this return of the buffalo to Rosebud Reservation, home
of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, proponents of the Wolakota Buffalo
Range project hope to turn back that trend. The Rosebud Economic
Development Corporation (REDCO), the Sicangu Lakota Oyate's economic
division, is leading the effort. It has signed a 15-year lease for
nearly 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) of former cattle pasture on
the reservation. And in the next five years, with the help of WWF
and the U.S. National Park Service, they hope to grow the herd to
1,500 animals, which would make it the largest owned by a Native
nation in the country, Wizipan Little Elk, REDCO's CEO, told Mongabay
A buffalo skull sits
on the plains where a group of people welcomed the bison back
to the Rosebud reservation. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
As a young boy, Little Elk said, visiting a buffalo herd on the
Rosebud reservation in the 1980s had been transformative, and at
19, he pledged to bring his people and the buffalo back into closer
Since his childhood, cattle brought in to grazed leased parcels
of land have replaced bison on Rosebud land. Other reservations,
however, including Pine Ridge and Fort Peck Indian Reservation in
the neighboring state of Montana, had begun to bring back their
own herds. The Lakota see the buffalo as their kin, so the presence
of herds at places like Fort Peck is seen as an opportunity to reforge
that cultural bond, as well as a potential boost to the reservation
"The sacred relationship between Native nation communities and
the buffalo is part of a shared story of strength, resilience and
economic revitalization," Little Elk, the architect of the Wolakota
project, said in a statement from WWF. "The arrival of the buffalo
marks a new beginning for the Sicangu Oyate, where cultural, ecological
and economic priorities are equally celebrated and supported and
are of great benefit to our community."
The bison released on the Rosebud pasture in October came from
Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National
Park in North Dakota. The move was part of the Bison Conservation
Initiative run by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), which
oversees the park service. It aims to build up "large, wild, connected,
genetically diverse and healthy bison herds." Providing "surplus"
animals to Native Peoples is one way the initiative's backers hope
to continue growing the animal's population while also helping to
reestablish that cultural connection with Plains Nations.
Bison were once so numerous
that they "blackened" the Great Plains of North America. Image
© Clay Bolt/WWF.
Genetics are a concern for the American bison (Bison bison) because
of the relentless hunting of the 19th century. Hunters, driven by
government bounties, killed as many as 5,000 animals a day for years
at a time. Since then, crossbreeding with cattle, though no longer
widely practiced, diluted the bison genome in all but a few isolated
The park service considers bison that share 2% or less of their
genes with cattle as genetically valuable, including the 100 sent
to Rosebud in October, said Dennis Jorgensen, a wildlife biologist
and WWF's bison initiative coordinator. Still, the small size of
most herds remains a concern. All bison alive today are descended
from the 1,000 that survived at the end of the 19th century, pushing
the species through what scientists call a genetic bottleneck. That
means they have a relatively small pool of genetic diversity to
draw from, especially for a species that had evolved to number in
the tens of millions.
The reproductively prolific bison also have relatively limited
areas of land into which they can expand, Jorgensen added.
"If they are fenced in," he added, "they are going to fill that
That means the species' existence today remains threatened
not by hunters as they once were, but by the perils of declining
genetic diversity and the threat of inbreeding. Rather than sell
the animals or send them to market, the DOI's bison initiative looks
to build up numbers and genetic diversity by providing the animals
to Native nations.
The new herd, with animals
from Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt national parks, lopes
onto their new home on Rosebud Indian Reservation. Image ©
Bison and prosperity
Bison herds on the Plains once reached almost incomprehensible
numbers. Stephen E. Ambrose writes in his book, Crazy Horse and
Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors, that a U.S.
military officer traveling through the Great Plains in the 1830s
reported "as far as the eye could reach the country seemed blackened
by innumerable herds."
True ecosystem engineers, restive with sharp hooves, and weighing
a metric ton (2,200 pounds) or more, bison sculpted the seemingly
featureless prairie into microhabitats that supported countless
birds, mammals and reptiles. Jorgensen said that ornithologists
have noted the superlative bird diversity on Montana's Fort Belknap
Indian reservation, which has had a herd of bison since the 1970s.
The restoration of those dynamics, beginning with the Wolakota range,
is one of the goals of returning the bison to the landscape.
But the Sicangu Oyate, too, need the bison as much as any species,
Monica Terkildsen said.
"It's reestablishing the ecosystem relationships and restoring
not only bison to the land, but what they're going to bring back
to the people," she said. "If the bison are strong, the people will
The U.S. National Park
Service provided the bison to the Rosebud reservation as part
of its Bison Conservation Initiative, meant to create larger
herds and increase the species' genetic diversity. Image ©
In the 1800s, the people of the Plains Nations were among the tallest
people on record at the time, a fact scientists attribute in large
part to the presence of the bison herds. Anthropologist Joseph Prince
and economist Richard Steckel mined anthropological data collected
by Franz Boas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primarily
from Sioux and Crow men. They found that the average Plains First
Nations man was a centimeter or two (0.4 to 0.8 inches) taller than
other Euro-Americans at that time. That meant he would have towered
6 to 12 centimeters (2.4 to 4.7 inches) over the average 19th century
"We link this extraordinary achievement to a rich and varied diet,
modest disease loads other than epidemics, a remarkable facility
at reorganization following demographic disasters, and egalitarian
principles of operation," Prince and Steckel wrote in a 1998 article
published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
At the same time, many other Native nations without the ready access
to bison who lived in places like the current southwestern United
States and Central America were, on average, much shorter than European-descended
"It seems clear that the Plains tribes, particularly those in the
mid to northern latitudes, had adequate protein and energy from
buffalo, and that this diet typically reached the poor," the team
What's more, the most successful buffalo-hunting peoples, the Lakota
among them, probably traded hides, bison-derived tools and meat
with other groups in places where the buffalo hunting wasn't as
good but who may have farmed vegetables and other crops. That exchange
likely provided the Sioux with the nutrients necessary for their
chart-topping height, in addition to the wild berries, onions, turnips
and other produce they gathered from the plains.
The Wolakota Buffalo
Range project aims to grow the Rosebud herd to 1,500 animals
over the next five years. Image © Clay Bolt/WWF.
More recent analyses led by economist Donna Feir suggest that "bison-reliant
societies were once the richest in North America, with living standards
comparable to or better than their average European contemporaries."
But that all changed after the loss of the bison, Jorgensen said.
"When the bison were wiped out, tribal people were starving. They
were forced to accept rations," he added. "They were now no longer
Feir and her colleagues wrote that the Plains Nations went from
being the tallest in the world in the 19th century to among the
shortest, and they earned significantly less money per capita than
members of other Native societies.
"When the bison were eliminated, the resource that underpinned
these societies vanished in an historical blink of the eye," the
team wrote. "[T]he loss of the bison had substantial and persistent
negative effects for the Native Americans who relied on them.
"We suggest that federal Indian policy that limited out-migration
from reservations and restricted employment opportunities to crop-based
agriculture, coupled with lasting psychological effects, prevented
these nations from recovering in the long-run," they added.
Hunting diminished bison
numbers to around 1,000 by the late 1800s. Image © Clay
Indeed, Jorgensen pointed out that 46% of tribal lands dedicated
to agriculture in the northern Great Plains of the United States
are controlled by people who aren't tribal members. He said it's
no coincidence that reservations are food-insecure, with the peoples
of the Great Plains some of the worst off.
But the Wolakota project brings hope, Jorgensen said.
"I really think that the return of the buffalo creates an opportunity
for the fortunes and the prosperity of both to rise again."
Peace, at last
Little Elk told Mongabay in May that they hope to develop a market
for pasture-raised bison meat. They could also sell licenses for
buffalo hunts, and the herd could attract tourists.
But for those benefits to take hold, it will require the engagement
of the reservation community, Jorgensen said in a follow-up email
"[T]his work involves not only ecology but social science and is
as much about community development as it is about the restoration
of a species," he said. "If the efforts to restore bison are not
based on community values, needs, and aspirations it is far less
likely that the conservation outcomes will be sustained."
Crews prepare for the
Oct. 30 release of the bison. Image © Stephanie Morgan.
WWF's role is a supporting member of the cast, Jorgensen said,
working on ecological and genetic studies and helping find the required
funding, estimated at $4 million for the first five years, to keep
the project running. At its core, the aim is to allow the Sicangu
Oyate to find their own path, a freedom that was stripped away more
than a century ago along with the buffalo.
"Self-determination, in part, means that the tribes can decide
what they want to do with the bison and when," Jorgensen said. "Giving
them a live bison means that they get to decide if they want to
sell those animals, whether they want to just allow those animals
to live out their life on tribal lands, or whether they want to
harvest those animals."
For Terkildsen, placing the bison again at the center of their
lives, however much the world has changed since their ancestors
followed the great herds, is critical to their future success.
"If the bison bring us peace, then we're no longer a hungry people,"
she said. "If you have peace, you can dream big."
The expansive Wolakota
Buffalo Range. Image © Stephanie Morgan.
Terkildsen said the bison's four circular charges in the pen before
taking to the pasture was a promising sign. For the Lakota and many
other Native American nations, the number 4 holds special significance.
Their medicine wheel symbolizes Earth itself and the wisdom of the
universe. It's typically a simple circle with two lines crossing
in the center, its four colors white, red, yellow and black
signifying the cardinal directions: north, south, east and
west. Each also represents a season in the calendar and in life.
"I was really happy because to me, it meant that what we
were communicating with them and they still recognize that communication,
that the teaching we learned from them a long time ago was still
intact," Terkildsen said. "That, to me, was really amazing."
She also said that releasing the herd onto the Rosebud pasture
should only be a first step.
"Let's not stop with this one," she added. "Let's continue as tribal
nations moving forward and restoring bison back onto the lands."
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him
on Twitter: @johnccannon