Restoring buffalo and resisting drought on the Pine Ridge reservation

Keeping up with bison is a way to preserve both past and future for Lakota in South Dakota

Tom Fast Wolf is the herd manager for the buffalo on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Kayla Gahagan

Editor's note: This is the third in a three-part series on how drought affects Native Americans and their communities. Part 1 looks at how it hits some communities harder. Part 2 looks at how some communities are changing in answer to drought and climate change.

KYLE, S.D. — Out on the windswept grass of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, without the safety of a fence, or a truck or a weapon, the buffalo amble close.

Close enough that you can witness their tangled fur, a soft mess of spiny hairs thick enough to withstand South Dakota’s coldest blizzards. Close enough to observe their wild, beady eyes, the drips of snot rolling down oversize nostrils, muscular bodies twitching with a startle.

The buffalo are an important cultural touchstone for Native American tribes such as the Lakota.
Kayla Gahagan

Herd manager Tom Fast Wolf keeps a safe, respectful distance. He remembers the time the truck door snapped right off its hinges with the impact of an angry bull, a fellow worker almost losing an eyeball when a hoof nicked his face. Or the time he walked away from his truck to roll out a barrel of hay, and turned to see a large young bull following him.

“I got nervous,” he recalled, staring out at the miles of prairie with a grin.

There are other things that make Fast Wolf uneasy. He grew up just a couple of miles from here as an Oglala Lakota, and manages one of the few buffalo herds on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — a 2 million-acre plot of land in the Northern Great Plains in southwestern South Dakota.

It has not been without a fight. It is expensive. Controversial. And the herd faces the same earthly hardships every generation has faced — fire, drought, blizzards, floods.

Fast Wolf thinks of all the work it has taken to begin to restore the American bison to this land, how important it is to reconnect his fellow tribal members with the animal that once sustained them, and that can do so again to help them heal from historical traumas, eat healthier and continue their cultural traditions.

And all of that is at risk if another extreme drought settles in to western South Dakota.

What’s at stake

While areas across the U.S. struggle with drought this year, debates over water rights and traditional practices, like irrigation, have communities searching for answers and resources that will help them survive from one dry season to the next.

Parts of South Dakota have experienced more than one severe drought during the past decade or so — the first in 2002 and 2003 and then again in 2012 — damaging crops, causing fires, stunting the growth of grass and forcing ranchers and buffalo herd managers to sell off cattle and bison.

The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), located in Rapid City, S.D., is an organization that works to help tribes re-establish healthy buffalo populations. The cooperative is in its final year of a three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant designed to help tribes prepare for drought and mitigate effects during a drought.

There’s much at stake, tribal members say. The American buffalo, also known as bison, carries significant meaning for Native American people.

The buffalo faced extermination in the 1800s at the hands of white men who struck where Native Americans were most vulnerable — killing the animals at the heart of their ceremonies, diet and shelter. More than 60 million buffalo were slaughtered, according to the ITBC.

A move to return them to tribal lands has slowly gained momentum on South Dakota’s nine reservations, encouraging individuals to start herds and communities to purchase meat for honorings and sundances.

“They’re part of our history,” said Russell Eagle Bear of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe. “It’s important that we have protection of our relatives, so to speak.”

The tribe has a 300-head herd and will benefit from the research and programs produced through the USDA grant, which has been used so far to research on-the-ground solutions, said ITBC executive director Jim Stone.

What they’re trying

One of the easiest ways to help with water and lack of food is building a one-rock dam, which is a dam of one layer of rock built across a creek bed to slow down the flow of water and allow it to seep into the ground and spill over bank beds. It encourages shrubs and grass to grow, stops erosion and increases the water quality.

“In three years, it’s amazing, the before-and-after photos,” Stone said.

The council has also researched the possibility of hydroponic fodder growth systems, which are trays of liquid and seed and grow much faster than typical vegetation.

Rolling out hay for the bison.
Kayla Gahagan

“Within three weeks, there’s 3-feet-tall vegetation to be fed to animals,” he said. That might help with the question of what kind of plant species has the most nutritional value for a buffalo.

The council also hopes to provide better ways for tribes to connect with each other, and resources, including online drought monitors for better communication.

While each tribe has been engaged in selling buffalo or using them in cultural ways, very few are working together to help each other.

“You don’t see coordination on that level,” Stone said.

As tribes reintroduce buffalo back onto their lands, it’s a challenge to find local, state and federal support.

“We’re not raising buffalo as livestock, but as wildlife, for cultural purposes,” Stone said. “There’s not a lot of resources aimed at that kind of practice.”

Harold Salway, the executive director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, agreed.

“We don’t have a lot of strength in Congress,” he said. If the government cared about the buffalo herds the way it does about American’s cattle, it would help during times of drought, he added. South Dakota’s historic October blizzard last year was a prime example.

“The cows died, and millions were generated,” he said.

The tribe benefits from the water in a nearby dam, so the bison had enough water during the latest drought. Food was another issue. The tribe struggled during the 2012 drought, and was rankled with the steep cost of supplementing hay to the nearly 1,000-head spread across five pastures.

“When the drought hit, we had to go to North Dakota to get hay at $45 a ton,” said Fast Wolf. It cost them $2,000 a load to bring back, and they purchased six loads. “We looked at a lot of other ways to feed them.”

Fire has also been an issue. Two of the pastures have burned during drought fire.

What is needed

Tribal governments are not the only entities that struggle.

A herd of 40 buffalo in Porcupine, S.D., is owned and managed by the Knife Chief Buffalo Nation Organization. The organization is supported in part by Village Earth, which initiated an Adopt-a-Buffalo Campaign in 2004 to help purchase buffalo for families on the reservation who wanted to sustainably utilize their lands. The program has helped restore more than 90 head of buffalo, creating two new herds and expanding two existing herds on the reservation.

“They’re strength; they’re a source of spiritual strength and a source of food,” said Ed Iron Cloud, who manages the herd. “They were our food, clothing and shelter, so now we’re strengthening our relationship with them. It’s even more necessary now to have them.”

Salway agreed and said they touch every part of life.

“Our deity is of the buffalo,” he said. “We received our sacred type from the animal. We hold the buffalo in such high reverence.”

Losing them again, he said, would be a tragedy.

As we are restoring the buffalo,
our health is improving.

Jim Stone

Executive director, Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative

“We would lose a lot of who we are,” he said. “Not just economics, but our social conditions and our spiritual fervor.”

The slaughter of the buffalo so many years ago started a downhill spiral of the independent Native spirit, Stone said.

“The loss of the maintenance of the buffalo culture started,” he said. The hunt, the healthier meat, the traditions started to disappear, which led to a loss of identity, he said. Pine Ridge Indian Reservation communities now experience high suicide rates, domestic violence and poverty.

“There are also a lot of health problems related to diet,” including diabetes, Stone said.

Depending on the cut, buffalo meat is often higher in protein, vitamin B and iron, and lower in cholesterol, according to Stone.

“That’s why we didn’t have these problems historically,” he added. “As we are restoring the buffalo, our health is improving.”

The Oglala Sioux tribe provides 30 pounds of buffalo meat for the traditional community meals after the death of a loved one. It also sells to the local schools, to sundances and seasonal hunting packages.

And it has a program that provides individuals who are interested in owning and managing a herd with a small number of buffalo. In return, the owner gives back calves from the herd.

Owning and managing a buffalo herd isn’t for the faint of heart, Salway said.

“It’s a pretty poverty-stricken area,” he said. “You need the money for fencing, equipment, vaccinations, the care and operation and maintenance. They’re wild and they’ll go where they want, when they want. If they want to go, they’ll tear right through a fence. A 2,500-pound bull — he’ll tip over a vehicle.”

But more ownership of more herds in more pastures all over the reservation is just what the tribes need, Stone said.

And until there are more here, Fast Wolf said he’ll do his part to help the next generation get an up-close and personal experience with the buffalo.

“I bring my grandkids out sometimes to see them,” he said, climbing into a truck and pausing to watch a handful of the herd gallop down a hill.

Stone said he wishes it could be that way for every child on the reservation.

“I would like buffalo to be in the everyday life of tribal people,” he said.

Restoring the buffalo to the plains is a form of healing for some Native American tribes, a source of both spiiritual sustenance and food.
Kayla Gahagan

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