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.

Economic benefits

The buffalo’s replacement, beef cattle, are numerous on reservation land. But, Terkildsen said, “There’s not a single ounce of meat coming back to feed us as a nation.”

A 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture study backed up that statement, revealing that 80% of agriculture-related revenues on Rosebud left the reservation, Jorgensen said.

“They are getting a lease payment,” he said, “but that isn’t the highest return that they could secure.”

Along with the symbolism of returning the buffalo to the care of the Lakota, leaders like Little Elk and Waln hope that the project will kick-start Rosebud’s economy. The need for managers and caretakers will mean jobs for people on the reservation, and the chance to expose children to bison could create new opportunities down the road.

Jonny BearCub Stiffarm, WWF’s buffalo program administrator at Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, said the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes living there have donated buffalo from their herds to reservation schools, and some students have participated in hunts on the reservation.

“Over the years, that has generated a lot of interest from the students in looking at what are the potential careers that could exist out there if they went to college,” Stiffarm said. Right now, “Wildlife biologists are something that we do not have in our fish and game department.”

She added that community surveys on Fort Peck revealed that the people needed a reintroduction to the buffalo when the animals returned to the land.

“Very few people actually realized that we had herds on the reservation,” she said, “and many people had never seen a live buffalo.”

Crews are currently working to install nearly 29 kilometers (18 miles) of fencing for the first 200 to 400 bison that will arrive on the Wolakota Buffalo Range in October 2020. Image by Luan Venter/Fulton Fencing.

Reservations now have much higher rates of diabetes, obesity, depression and substance abuse, among other health problems, compared to society as a whole. As Stiffarm sees it, buffalo is a nutritious addition to the diet on the reservation that could help alleviate some of those problems. For example, there’s evidence that buffalo meat provides more protein and less cholesterol and fat than beef, according to the National Bison Association.

But leaner meat requires different cooking techniques to make it palatable, Stiffarm said, and most people on the reservation have neither the knowledge nor the cold storage space to butcher a 900-kilogram (2,000-pound) bull. So she has worked to educate residents of the reservation on that front, along with why culling is necessary in the first place.

“We get a lot of outsiders who have no clue that you just cannot have an overabundance of buffalo,” Stiffarm said.

Jorgensen calls bison “survivors.”

“Whatever land base you give bison, they are going to fill it,” he said. “They’re just so hardy.”

The limited space available to bison is one reason for the DOI’s conservation initiative. Packing too many animals into a small space, such as a national park, is a recipe for inbreeding, overgrazing and disease. By sharing animals with reservations, the agency is helping to ensure the conservation of the bison, recently named the U.S.’s national mammal.

On the Rosebud reservation, that projected surplus of animals will eventually lead the project to sustainability, the project’s proponents say. The bison will live out their lives on the reservation. When the herd grows too large, the tribe can sell licenses for hunts, and they also plan to harvest animals and provide them to the community or sell the entirely grass-fed bison meat to market.

A new world

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of self-sufficiency, Little Elk said.

Herds on other reservations are already providing the community with food in a time of crisis. Stiffarm has been organizing the delivery of potatoes to accompany the buffalo meat that the tribes had donated to vulnerable senior citizens in the Fort Peck community. On Rosebud, Little Elk said he sees the Rosebud buffalo reintroduction as a step toward “preparedness and resiliency.”

“This is an extremely relevant project, especially now that we’re looking at the disruption of global food and supply chains,” he said. “We’re going to need 10,000 more of these kinds of projects in North America.”

He said the effort may “unlock other opportunities” and could be “an amazing proof point” that such a multifaceted project is possible. But he also acknowledges the work ahead. Crews will erect repair wells and put up about 29 kilometers (18 miles) of fencing this summer, and that’s just for the first 200 to 400 animals scheduled to be delivered in October 2020.

“It’s going to be an incredible responsibility, because all of a sudden, you’re responsible for a life,” Little Elk said. Those lives carry the weight of generations of Lakota and the buffalo before him. “We are the same people.”

Banner image of an American Bison in the U.S. by Jack Dykinga via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the area on which the first 200 to 400 animals will be released in 2020. It is 3,400 hectares (8,500 acres), not 200 hectares (500 acres), and crews will erect 29 kilometers (18 miles) of fencing in 2020.

Citation:

Samson, F. B., & Knopf, F. L. (Eds.). (1996). Prairie conservation: Preserving North America’s most endangered ecosystem. Island Press.

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