Tribes Return Bison to Circle of Life
by Terry Woster Argus Leader
Sometimes, when Sheldon Fletcher craves a break in his duties as wildlife specialist with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, he rides an all-terrain vehicle into the Missouri River breaks to watch the buffalo.
The massive animals of the ancient plains have an enduring sense of dignity that stills any unrest in his life, Fletcher says.
"I can't explain it but to say I feel at peace," he said. "They are magnificent animals. We can learn a lot from them. I'm glad the tribes are trying to reintroduce buffalo to their cultures."
Tribes in South Dakota and across the nation are bringing back the buffalo. Some are motivated by economics and the possibility of a tourist attraction, to be sure. But most also are serious about restoring a relationship between humans and animals that was a part of life for American Indians before railroads, buffalo hunters and the onslaught of farming and building of cities all but wiped bison from the United States.
But to want to bring back the buffalo and to actually operate a healthy, growing herd are two different things. Heritage and historical relationships or not, many Indians don't know much about living around buffalo, says Wolf Smoke, one of the speakers at a summer institute on bison held Wednesday through Friday at Lower Brule.
Similar institutes have been held on other reservations in past summers. This year's gathering was titled "Restoring Natural Systems." It was sponsored by the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and Northern Plains Bison Education Network.
The stereotypical thinking is that an Indian just by his race understands buffalo better than a non-Indian, said Smoke, a Lakota man who has worked with buffalo in public and private herds. He talked at the institute about the psychology of buffalo.
"The truth is, it takes understanding and respect to deal with buffalo, and it doesn't matter what color you are, you need to learn those things," Smoke said.
He has spent hours watching buffalo herds, studying how the animals act and react with each other.
The herd assembles much as a traditional Indian society did, with the calves and yearlings protected by the older animals. The young adults tend to locate themselves on the outer edges of the herd to be the first line of defense against predators and other danger.
"Less violent than humans"
"A lot of people are scared of bison because of their size and power," Smoke said. "There's no reason to be afraid. They're less violent than humans."
Even though buffalo are large and strong, they're also fragile creatures. Mishandling them causes stress that is sometimes so intense the animal will die, said Judi Wood, bison project coordinator for the Lower Brule tribe.
"You can get a buffalo to do anything it wants to do," she said as she introduced a video on stress-free handling of buffalo.
A key tenet of the developing program is to recognize the "flight space" of the animal, she said. That's an unmarked zone around each buffalo, but a human can tell if the zone has been violated because the animal will either move away or begin making aggressive movements. When a buffalo's flight space is invaded, the animal's stress level increases.
"Sometimes you need to back off, take some time and convince the animal that what you want it to do is really what it wants to do," Wood said.
Smoke agreed, telling of an instance in which a bull from a herd in a public park attacked a human. The animal was called unpredictable, but the people who said that missed all the signs that the buffalo was becoming agitated as its flight space was penetrated, Smoke said.
"He'd been giving the guy signals for a long time about having his space invaded," he said. At some point, realizing the human wasn't getting the message, the bull decided "to take him out, and then the animal is called unpredictable."
Sebastian Brown, a native of Switzerland interning with the buffalo program at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, attended the institute as part of an ongoing study of relationships between people and animals.
"It's fascinating to watch how the buffalo and the people who work with them respond to each other," he said. "I've been captivated by the whole experience."
Restoring their role
The InterTribal Bison Cooperative, headquartered in Rapid City, is a group of more than 50 federally recognized tribes that have dedicated themselves to restoring the buffalo to Indian country.
"The buffalo is such an integral part of the history and culture, the religion and spiritual life of the Indian people, it needs to be brought back into their lives," said Gerald Dewey, who attended the institute for the intertribal group. "It was food, shelter and religion, an essential part of the culture. But, it takes a lot of learning and relearning to get a herd established."
Dewey's group is instrumental in getting buffalo distributed to tribes across the country.
The intertribal organization buys some animals from private herds and others from public herds, such as the one in Badlands National Park. Lower Brule, which started a buffalo herd more than 20 years ago, has in recent years bought some animals from the Badlands when the park reduced its herd to keep the numbers manageable for the available land, Fletcher said.
The intertribal cooperative also helps with federal grants that give tribes money to maintain and improve the herds, he said.
Among the tribe's goals is to instill in its members a habit of eating buffalo more often. Buffalo meat is provided to the schools, Head Start and other programs, and to the elderly and diabetic, Fletcher said. It is sold at a favorable price to other tribal members to encourage more consumption.
"It's both healthy and a tradition we're trying to bring back," he said.
Herd size reaches 300
At Lower Brule, buffalo are kept in three pastures. There are 85 buffalo and 180 elk in a 3,000-acre pasture along the Missouri River just north and west of the town of Lower Brule. Another herd of 115 buffalo is pastured on tribal land north of Kennebec. The third herd, 100 animals, is outside the reservation boundaries on a ranch the tribe bought a few years ago 8 miles southeast of Fort Pierre.
That last spot is where tribal leaders hope to build a buffalo interpretive center. Officials want to take advantage of the designation of Highway 1806 as a Native American Scenic Byway to try to draw visitors to the interpretive center and on down the river to Lower Brule itself.
The herd closest to town already draws a fair number of visitors, Fletcher said. Sometimes, the buffalo can be seen from the highway a few miles west of the community. Often, though, visitors intent on seeing buffalo must pile into four-wheel-drive vehicles and be hauled across the river bluffs to whatever spot the herd happens to be occupying that day.
On a recent outing, Fletcher drove with a newspaper reporter and photographer for more than an hour before he spotted most of the herd spread across the gently rounded top of a gumbo bluff. With the Big Bend of the Missouri River and the green of an East River mint farm as a backdrop, he pointed out the calves, cows and young males. The animals stood in the bright sunshine of a 98-degree afternoon, dropping from time to time to roll in the gumbo dust to discourage biting flies.
On both sides of the ridge, the land dropped away into steep valleys thick with cedar and cottonwood trees. As Fletcher and his visitors watched, a small herd of elk broke from the shade of the valley and moved easily over a ridge.
"The elk like it in the shade, but when it's hot, the buffalo prefer to be out in the open, where they can catch the breeze and wallow a little to keep the insects away," Fletcher said.
His radio crackled, and he answered a call from another conservation officer. The caller had Smoke and a crew from a public television station with him. They were shooting tape for a documentary on buffalo and tribes, and the caller wondered where to find the animals.
Fletcher gave directions. On the bluff below, a few of the buffalo started to drift north, toward the river bottom. The tribe has an 8-foot-high fence in place to keep the animals from plunging in and swimming across to the mint and corn fields in the bottom land across the channel.
"They'd go right across if they had access to the river," Fletcher said. Then he stood silent a moment, watching the buffalo amble over the cracked earth of the bluffs.
"Really, I could watch these guys for hours at a time," he said, finally. "There's nothing like it."
Intertribal Bison Co-Operative
Paths to Bison/Buffalo Information
North American Bison
American Buffalo(Bison Bison)
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