Animals Find Haven on Tribal Lands
FORT BELKNAP AGENCY, Mont. In the employee directory
of the Fort Belknap Reservation, Bronc Speak Thunder's title is
In 2012, Mr. Speak Thunder drove a livestock trailer in a convoy
from Yellowstone National Park that returned genetically pure bison
to tribal land in northeastern Montana for the first time in 140
years. Mr. Speak Thunder, 32, is one of a growing number of younger
Native Americans who are helping to restore native animals to tribal
lands across the Northern Great Plains, in the Dakotas, Montana
and parts of Nebraska.
They include people like Robert Goodman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux,
who moved away from his reservation in the early 2000s and earned
a degree in wildlife management. When he graduated in 2005, he could
not find work in that field, so he took a job in construction in
Rapid City, S.D.
Then he learned of work that would bring him home. The parks
and recreation department of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he
grew up, needed someone to help restore rare native wildlife
including the swift fox, a small, tan wild dog revered for its cleverness.
In 2009, Mr. Goodman held a six-pound transplant by its scruff and
showed it by firelight to a circle of tribal elders, members of
a reconvened warrior society that had disbanded when the foxes disappeared.
have never been that traditional," said Mr. Goodman, 33, who released
that fox and others into the wild after the ceremony. "But that
was spiritual to me."
For a native wildlife reintroduction to work, native habitat
is needed, biologists say. On the Northern Great Plains, that habitat
is the original grass, never sliced by a farmer's plow.
Unplowed temperate grassland is the least protected large ecosystem
on earth, according to the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit
organization dedicated to grassland preservation. Tribes on America's
Northern Plains, however, have left their grasslands largely intact.
More than 70 percent of tribal land in the Northern Plains is
unplowed, compared with around 60 percent of private land, the World
Wildlife Fund said. Around 90 million acres of unplowed grasses
remain on the Northern Plains. Tribes on 14 reservations here saved
about 10 percent of that 90 million an area bigger than New
Jersey and Massachusetts combined.
"Tribes are to be applauded for saving so much habitat," said
Dean E. Biggins, a wildlife biologist for the United States Geological
Wildlife stewardship on the Northern Plains' prairies, bluffs
and badlands is spread fairly evenly among private, public and tribal
lands, conservationists say. But for a few of the rarest native
animals, tribal land has been more welcoming.
The swift fox, for example, was once considered for listing
as an endangered species after it was killed in droves by agricultural
poison and coyotes that proliferated after the elimination of wolves.
Now it has been reintroduced in six habitats, four on tribal lands.
"I felt a sense of pride trying to get these little guys to
survive," said Les Bighorn, 54, a tribe member and game warden at
Montana's Fort Peck Reservation who in 2005 led a reintroduction
of swift foxes.
Mr. Speak Thunder, who took part in the bison convoy, agreed.
"A lot of younger folks are searching, seeking out interesting experiences,"
he said. "I have a lot of friends who just want to ride with me
some days and help out."
Over the last four years in Montana, the tribes at Fort Peck
and Fort Belknap, along with the tycoon and philanthropist Ted Turner,
saved dozens of bison that had migrated from Yellowstone. Once the
food staple of Native Americans on the Great Plains, bison were
virtually exterminated in the late 19th century; the Yellowstone
bison are genetic descendants of the only ones that escaped in the
This spring, by contrast, Yellowstone officials captured about
300 bison and sent them to slaughterhouses. Al Nash, a park spokesman,
said they were culled after state and federal agencies "worked together
to address bison management issues." The cattle industry opposes
wild bison for fear the animals might compete with domestic cows
for grass, damage fences or spread disease.
Emily Boyd-Valandra, 29, a wildlife biologist at the Rosebud
Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, is emblematic of new tribal wildlife
managers working around the Northern Plains. She went to college
and studied ecology. (Nationwide, the rate of indigenous people
in America attending college has doubled since 1970, according to
the American Indian College Fund.)
Diploma in hand, Ms. Boyd-Valandra moved home, took a job with
her tribe's department of game, fish and parks, and found a place
for what she called "education to bridge the gap between traditional
culture and science."
Blending her college lessons with the reverence for native animals
she absorbed from her elders, she helped safeguard black-footed
ferrets on her reservation from threats like disease and habitat
fragmentation. The animal was twice declared extinct after its primary
prey, the prairie dog, was wiped out across 97 percent of its historic
range; since 2000, ferrets have been reintroduced in 13 American
habitats, five of them on tribal land.
"Now that we're getting our own people back here," Ms. Boyd-Valandra
said, "you get the work and also the passion and the connection."
One of her mentors is Shaun Grassel, 42, a biologist for the Lower
Brule Indian Reservation in South Dakota. "What's happening gives
me a lot of hope," he said.
Though each reservation is sovereign, wildlife restoration has
been guided to a degree by grants from the federal government. Since
2002, the Fish and Wildlife Service has given $60 million to 170
tribes for 300 projects that aided unique Western species, including
gray wolves, bighorn sheep, Lahontan cutthroat trout and bison.
"Tribal land in the U.S. is about equal to all our national
wildlife refuges," said D. J. Monette of the wildlife agency. "So
tribes really have an equal opportunity to protect critters."
Nonprofit conservation organizations have also helped. But tribe
leaders say that what drives their efforts is a cultural memory
that was passed down from ancestors who knew the land before European
settlement when it teemed with wildlife.
"Part of our connection with the land is to put animals back,"
said Mark Azure, 54, the president of the Fort Belknap tribe. "And
as Indian people, we can use Indian country."
In late 2013, during the painful federal sequestration that
forced layoffs on reservations, Mr. Azure authorized the reintroduction
of 32 bison from Yellowstone and 32 black-footed ferrets. That helped
secure several thousand dollars from the nonprofit Defenders of
Wildlife and kept some tribe members at work on the reintroduction
projects, providing employment through an economic dip and advancing
the tribe's long-term vision of native ecosystem restoration. The
next project is an aviary for eagles.
One night last fall, Kristy Bly, 42, a biologist from the World
Wildlife Fund, visited the reservation to check on the transplanted
black-footed ferrets. Mena Limpy-Goings, 39, a tribe member, asked
to ride along because she had never seen one.
They drove around a bison pasture under the Northern Lights
for hours, until the spotlight mounted on Ms. Bly's pickup reflected
off the eyes of a ferret dancing atop a prairie dog burrow.
"Yee-hoo!" Ms. Bly cheered. "You're looking at one of only 500
alive in the wild."
Ms. Limpy-Goings hugged herself.
"It is," she says, "more beautiful than I ever imagined."