The bison, a hallmark of northern prairie ecosystems, is North America’s original, wild icon. Estimates of the region’s historic bounty of shaggy giants range from 30 to 75 million, dwindling to current estimates of around 350,000. Minnesota has its own Bison Conservation Herd, consisting of 130 animals spread out over Minneopa State Park, Blue Mounds State Park, and the Minnesota Zoo. An hour and a half from the Badlands lay the Rosebud Indian Reservation, home to the Sicangu Oyate, a branch of the Lakota people. Here, the Wolakota Buffalo Range is quietly forming, on track to become the largest Native-managed buffalo herd in the world.
Established in 1999, the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) is the economic development arm of the Rosebud Sioux. At the helm is CEO Wizipan Little Elk, who has been in the role since 2011. Years before that, at the ripe age of 20, Little Elk had sat down to create a list of lifetime goals—one of which was to do something of importance with buffalo for his people. Thus, the seed was planted for the creation of the Wolakota Buffalo Range.
“[The buffalo range] is far more than just a business. That’s an old way of thinking,” Little Elk wrote in an email. “The new way of thinking is about creating platforms for healing and prosperity.”
While the Wolakota Buffalo Range has been on Little Elk’s mind for decades, the project is moving at a clipping pace now. In March, REDCO secured a 15-year lease of 28,000 acres from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. July brought crucial steps in infrastructure development—a fencing crew implemented 18 miles (about $250,000) of heavy-duty fencing, as the previous infrastructure was appropriate for cattle grazing, not for a herd of 2,000-pound animals. A herd manager was hired, and feasibility studies and growth measurements were carried out. The plan is to have buffalo on the ground by October, growing to a goal of 1,500 animals over five years.
REDCO has forged a partnership with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the international wildlife-conservation behemoth, which is providing REDCO with technical assistance, fundraising guidance, and connections to the right people.
In early May, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced its Bison Conservation Initiative and named REDCO as a prioritized recipient of surplus bison. So, over the next decade, surplus animals from national parks and national wildlife refuges will be sent to join the Wolakota Buffalo Range at no cost—that’s about $2 million in free buffalo that will aid in the project’s long-term sustainability.
The DOI Bison Working Group includes representatives from the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The initiative is built around five central goals: wild, healthy bison herds; genetic conservation; shared stewardship; ecological restoration; and cultural restoration.
REDCO’s sister nonprofit Sicangu Community Development Corporation was recently awarded a grant that will allow them to purchase two herd shares per year for the next two years. They can then harvest two animals per year for six years. The meat harvested through that program will be used to provide meals for the students at their Lakota immersion school, Wakanyeja Tokeyahci (Children First).
Culture, COVID-19, and the Environment
Cultural relevance is paramount to the practical application of the herd. “We will be designating a certain number of animals per year to ceremonial hunts, like coming-of-age ceremonies and community harvests, and we’ll be partnering with the local school so that the meat can come back to students and families,” writes Little Elk.
As COVID-19 has rocked national and international food systems and supply chains, local meat has also gained further relevance.
Infections have given smaller meat lockers months-long backlogs as large processing plants have had to shut down, with positive tests climbing into the thousands. Native people living in remote tribal areas have been especially hurt by food-supply disruption, which has exacerbated the conditions of already-existing food deserts.
In the future of the Wolakota Buffalo Range lay a vision for a tribally owned and managed meat-processing facility. Tribal citizens would get to replace the processed foods often most readily available to reservations.
Food sovereignty—the right of Indigenous people to consume, create, and control relevant food systems—guided portions of this project before COVID-19, but because of the pandemic’s detrimental impact on food security, the idea of tribal oversight of food sources has become more pertinent. One idea in the works at the range is to sell at higher price points to clients in cities like Denver and New York, to be able to provide more-affordable meat to Rosebud tribal citizens.
Environmental issues have played a role, too, as the Wolakota Buffalo Range project fits into a new vision of environmentally sustainable food chains.
The project is an example of regenerative agriculture: The range will feature carbon sequestration, whereby carbon dioxide is captured and stored, and the buffalo will get to roam their natural habitat, where flora and fauna can support each other, as they did when prairie ecosystems were flourishing. “The power of this work is that we can lead from an Indigenous perspective,” emphasizes Little Elk. “Western science is just now catching up to what we’ve known for thousands of years—that buffalo are an essential species to a healthy prairie ecosystem.”
He adds, “Wolakota is an example of the new economics that we as a global human society are going to need to switch to. We are creating an economic system where profits are reinvested locally to improve lives. The environment is strengthened, and animals are treated with respect. And social justice is advanced by righting historical wrongs through life-giving opportunity.”