Bison proliferate while Native American tribes retake control

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, SD (AP) — Perched atop a fence in Badlands National Park, Troy Heinert peered under his wide-brimmed hat into a pen where 100 wild bison were awaiting transfer to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

Descendants of bison that once roamed the Great Plains of North America by the tens of millions, the animals were soon thundering up a chute, taking a truck ride across South Dakota, and joining one of the many burgeoning herds that Heinert was helping to reintroduce to the land of the Native Americans were involved.

Heinert gave a satisfied nod to one of the park service employees while the animals stamped their hooves and kicked up dust in the cold wind. He took a quick call from Iowa that another herd was being taken to tribes in Minnesota and Oklahoma, then spoke to another trucker about more bison bound for Wisconsin.

As night fell, the last of the American buffalo shipped out of the Badlands were unloaded at the Rosebud Reservation, where Heinert lives. The next day he was on his way back to Badlands to offload 200 bison for another tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux.

Most bison in North America live in commercial herds and are treated no differently than cattle.

“Buffalo, they live in two worlds,” said Heinert. “Are they commercial or are they wild? From a tribal perspective, we always viewed them as wildlife or, to take it a step further, as relatives.”

Some 82 tribes across the US — from New York to Alaska — now have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds — and that’s been growing in recent years, along with a desire among Native Americans to take back responsibility for an animal that is theirs ancestors lived and depended on for thousands of years.

European settlers shattered this balance when they slaughtered the large herds. Bison almost went extinct until conservationists like Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to rebuild small numbers of herds mostly on federal land. Native Americans were sometimes excluded from these early efforts by conservation groups.

Such groups have more recently allied themselves with tribes, and some are now stepping aside. The long-term dream of some Native Americans: return of bison on a scale to rival herds that roamed the continent in numbers that shaped the landscape itself.

Heinert, 50, a South Dakota state senator and director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, sees his job in practical terms: bringing bison to tribes who want them, whether two animals or 200. He helps them revive long-neglected cultural connections and the Increase food security, reclaim sovereignty and improve land management. This fall, Heinert’s group brought 2,041 bison to 22 tribes in 10 states.

“All of these tribes have relied on them at some point, whether for food, shelter, or ceremonies. The stories that come from these tribes are unique to these tribes,” he said. “These tribes are trying to go back there and reestablish that connection that was once there and was once very strong.”


For centuries, bison determined the rhythm of life of the Lakota Sioux and many other nomadic tribes who followed their annual migrations. Skins for clothing and teepees, bones for tools and weapons, horns for ladles, hair for rope—a steady supply of bison was essential.

During so-called “buffalo jumps” herds were driven off cliffs and then slaughtered for days and weeks. Archaeologists have found huge amounts of bones in some places, suggesting large-scale processing.

European settlers and firearms brought the company a new level of industry as hunters, US troops and tourists hunted down bison and a growing commercial market used their parts in machinery, fertilizer and clothing. By 1889, only a few bison remained: 10 animals in central Montana, 20 each in central Colorado and southern Wyoming, 200 in Yellowstone National Park, about 550 in northern Alberta, and about 250 in zoos and private herds.

Stacks of buffalo skulls featured in haunting photos from the period illustrate an ecological and cultural catastrophe.

“We wanted to populate the western half of the United States because there were so many people in the east,” US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet member, said in an interview. “They wanted all the Indians dead so they could take their land from them.”

The reasoning at the time, she added, was, “If we kill the buffalo, the Indians will die. You will have nothing to eat.’”


The day after the bison were transferred from the Badlands, Heinert’s son TJ was lying flat on the ground, his scope trained on a large bull bison in the Wolakota Buffalo Range. The tribal enterprise has restored approximately 1,000 bison in just two years on 28,000 acres (11,300 hectares) of rolling, scrub-covered hills near the Nebraska-South Dakota border.

Heinert paused to pull a cactus paddle from the back of his hand and looked back through the scope. The 28-year-old had been speaking all morning about the need for a perfect shot and the difficulty in 40 mph winds. The first bullet hit the animal in the ear, but it lumbered away a few hundred yards to join a larger group of bison, with the hunter following in an all-terrain vehicle.

Two more shots, then, after the animal finally went down, Heinert pulled up close and held the rifle behind its ear for a final shot that stopped its thrashing. “Definitely not how it’s supposed to be going,” Heinert repeated over and over again, disappointed that it wasn’t an instant kill. “But we caught him. That’s all that matters at this point.”


Concurrent with the widespread extermination of bison, tribes such as the Lakota were stripped of their lands by broken treaties that reduced the “Great Sioux Reservation” established in 1851 to several much smaller reservations in the Dakotas by 1889. In the absence of bison, tribal members relied on government “beef stations” that distributed meat from cattle farms.

The program was a boon to white ranchers. Today, Cherry County, Nebraska—along the southern boundary of the Rosebud Reservation—has more cattle than any other US county.

Removing fences that criss-cross ranches there and opening them up to bison is unlikely, but Rosebud Sioux is keen to expand the reserve’s herds as a reliable food source.

Others have bigger visions: The Blackfeet of Montana and tribes in Alberta want to establish a “bordering herd” that stretches across the Canadian border near Glacier National Park. Other tribes suggest “Buffalo Commons” on state land in central Montana where the area’s tribes could harvest animals.

“What would it be like to have 30 million buffalo back in North America?” said Cristina Mormorunni, a Métis Indian who has worked with the Blackfeet to restore bison.

With so many people, houses and fences, Haaland said there was no turning back. But her agency has become a major source of bison, transferring more than 20,000 to tribes and tribal organizations over 20 years, typically to thin government-controlled herds to keep them from outgrowing their lands.

“It’s wonderful that tribes are collaborating on something as important as bison that was almost lost,” Haaland said.

Transfers sometimes raise objections from ranchers who worry that bison will carry disease and compete for grass. Such fears have long prevented efforts to transfer bison out of Yellowstone National Park.

Interior officials work with state officials to ensure relocated bison meet local veterinary requirements. But they usually do not vaccinate the animals and touch them as little as possible.

Demand for bison from the tribes is growing, and Haaland said transfers are continuing. That includes up to 1,000 being trucked this year from Badlands, Grand Canyon National Park and several national wildlife refuges. Others come from conservation groups and tribes that share surplus bison.


Back in the Wolakota Range, Daniel Eagle Road approached the bison shot by TJ Heinert. Eagle Road put a hand on the animal’s head. Heinert pulled out some chewing tobacco, tucked some behind his lip and passed the can to Eagle Road, who did the same. Heinert sprinkled tobacco on the bison’s back and prayed.

Attached with chains around its front and rear legs, the half-ton animal was hoisted onto a flatbed truck for a swinging ride to ranch headquarters. About 20 adults and children gathered as the bison was lowered onto a tarp and then solemnly listened to Tribal Elder Duane Hollow Horn Bear.

“This relative has left us to fend for himself, for our livelihood, for our way, or for our lives,” Horn Bear said.

Soon the tarpaulin was covered with bloody footprints from people who butchered the animal. They quartered it, sawed through bones, and then sliced ​​flesh from the animal’s legs, rump, and huge hump. Children, some as young as 6, were given knives to cut off skin and fat.

The adults took turns dipping pieces of kidney into the bile of the animals’ bile. “Like salsa,” someone shouted while others laughed.

The stomach was washed out for use in the soup. The fur was scraped off and laid out on a railing to dry. The skull was cleaned and the tongue, a delicacy, cut out.

Then came an assembly line for cutting, grinding, and packaging meat that was distributed to families through a food program run by the tribal agency that runs the ranch. The work lasted into the night.

A first for many, harvesting presents a challenge for the Rosebud Sioux and other tribes: few people have the slaughtering skills and cultural knowledge to make a personal connection with bison.

Katrina Fuller, who helped with the slaughter, dreams of training others so the reservation’s 20 communities can come to Wolakota for their own harvest. “Maybe not now, but in my lifetime,” she said. “That’s what I wish for everyone.”

Horn Bear, 73, said that when he was very young, his grandparents told him creation stories centered around bison. But then he was forcibly enrolled in an Indian boarding school — government-sponsored institutions where tribal traditions were stamped out with beatings and other cruelties. The bison were already gone, and the schools were trying to erase their stories as well.

Standing on the blood-spattered tarp, Horn Bear said the harvest is bringing back what has been almost entirely taken from him – the culture, economy and social fabric of his people.

“It’s like going back home to a lifestyle,” he said.


Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP


Video journalist Emma H. ​​Tobin contributed to this report.


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