The Rosebud Indian Reservation in the U.S. state of South Dakota plans to bring the American bison back to around 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) of prairie on the reservation.Over the next five years, tribal groups will work with WWF and the U.S. Department of the Interior to release as many as 1,500 bison on the Wolakota Buffalo Range, which would make it the largest Native American-owned herd in North America.The Lakota people of Rosebud have an abiding connection with the bison, or buffalo, and the leaders of the project say that, in addition to the symbolic importance of returning the Lakotas’ “relatives” to their land, the herd will help create jobs, restore the ecological vigor of the landscape, and aid in the conservation of the species. As a young boy living on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, Wizipan Little Elk remembers the first time he saw a buffalo herd. The experience ignited a passion, and at the age of 19, he resolved to do “something meaningful” for buffalo. Little Elk left home to attend college at Yale and law school in Arizona, before a stint as an appointed official in the Department of the Interior (DOI) under the Obama administration. Then, his path led him home in 2011 to take up the post of CEO of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO). For decades, leaders of the Lakota and other Native American tribes of North America’s Great Plains dreamed of returning the buffalo to their homeland. Now, Little Elk and the people of Rosebud are on the cusp of realizing that vision, with the first buffalo set to be released back on the reservation this fall. The initial plan is to release several hundred buffalo donated through the DOI’s Bison Conservation Initiative onto about 3,400 hectares (8,500 acres) of land. REDCO’s broader vision is to work with WWF, the DOI and the Tribal Land Enterprise, which manages the reservation’s land, to fill about 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) with 1,500 bison. A herd that size would be the largest owned by Native Americans in North America. “This is a continuation of a whole bunch of work and sacrifice that people before us have done,” Little Elk told Mongabay. “We’re just fulfilling what other people have dreamed about.” Buffalo at Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Image by Day’s Edge/WWF-US. The history and tribal mythology of the Lakota Sioux are so intimately braided with the buffalo that it’s difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. The Lakota and the buffalo were once the same people living in Wind Cave on the edge of the Black Hills, according to the tribe’s creation story. And storytellers speak of a great footrace around the Black Hills, when the people of the plains reconciled their differences with the buffalo. From that point on, the Lakota say the buffalo have given their meat and hides to help them survive. In the 19th century, treaties to protect Native American lands were struck between the tribes and the U.S. government, only to be broken as the tide of white and European settlers moving westward gained momentum. Long-simmering conflicts boiled over into the “Indian Wars” of the 1870s. By that time, U.S. leaders came to see killing the buffalo as the key to the expansion of the fledgling country. In tandem with what amounted to a genocidal campaign to force Native American tribes onto reservations, the bounties offered to buffalo hunters led to the slaughter of tens of millions of buffalo, also known as the American bison (Bison bison), which dwindled to just a few hundred. “As our land was stolen, buffalo were the first casualty,” Little Elk said. The goal was “to literally destroy the food source and the supply and the livelihood of Native Americans.” Photograph from 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer or charcoal. Image by Chick Bowen via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain). As the buffalo evaporated from prairies, the plains tribes lost an anchor of their existence and with it their nomadic way of life following the great herds. Today, bison are in little danger of dying out completely. Perhaps 400,000 live across the western United States and Canada, primarily on private ranches. But the purity of the species is threatened. Most living bison carry some genes from domestic cattle. As genetically pure strains have been pushed into smaller and smaller corners of western North America, their existence has been thrown into doubt. Today, reservations like Rosebud have begun to play an increasingly important role in the survival of the species, providing a home for full-blooded bison when they become too numerous on DOI-managed lands. Leaders like Little Elk see the return as a sort of homecoming. “From our perspective, they’re our relatives,” he said. “We’re tied to them.” Today, however, it’s mostly cattle, not bison, that graze the prairies of many reservations. Bureau of Indian Affairs policies led to the partitioning of land aimed at supporting domesticated livestock, leading landowners to daisy-chain together strings of five-year leases for the disparate parcels. “Our land had become so fractionated,” said Monica Terkildsen, an Oglala Lakota member living on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and a tribal community liaison with WWF. “We really lost the ability to control our land.” In contrast, the plan to bring the buffalo back to Rosebud will start with a 15-year lease. Terkildsen sees that term as a much more stable platform for the economic development, cultural significance and ecological restoration that the leaders of the Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range and Wildlife Sanctuary, as it’s known, hope to encourage. “We have space, we have grass and we have water,” she said. “That’s our economy on these reservations, grass or grazing.” An American bison at Turtle Mount Buffalo Ranch, Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Image by Thomas Lee/WWF-US. Heal the land Years of intensive grazing, though, have altered the state of the grasslands. Dennis Jorgensen, a wildlife biologist and WWF’s bison initiative coordinator, said that ranchers often manage cattle to make the most use of the grass available, being careful not to over- or undergraze any one spot on the range. “They want to use the resource, and they want to use it sustainably,” Jorgensen said. What that approach typically creates is more or less uniform grassland.” On the other hand, “Bison tend to graze on the hoof,” he said. “They tend to graze on the move, and anecdotally, what we find is that they create more of a patchy environment.” Through their grazing habits, bison create a hodgepodge of different habitats that can, in turn, support a wider array of species. It’s not that bison “have some sort of magical quality,” Jorgensen said. “But they have evolved with the system over 10,000 years and with grasslands over a much longer period.” He pointed to the results on Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana, which has had bison since the mid-1970s. “I’ve had [world-class] ornithologists come there and say, ‘I cannot believe the bird diversity on this pasture. To find this diversity of birds otherwise, I would have to explore millions of acres in the surrounding area,’” Jorgensen said. Ecologists say that the bison, along with prairie dogs and fire, were once the dominant forces shaping the environment. Research has shown that threatened bird species, like the IUCN Red Listed mountain plover (Charadrius montanus), depended on the wallows that bison left on the prairie when they rolled around. Bison also spread seeds in their dung, and they kept in check the enterprising spruce, pine and willow trees that could quickly change the complexion of the prairie. “[Bison] can heal the land,” Vi Waln, chairperson of the Tribal Land Enterprise, said in an interview.