US Tribe Working Diligently to Bring Bison Back from the Verge of Extinction

US Tribe Working Diligently to Bring Bison Back from the Verge of Extinction

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

It’s been a long time since the Rosebud Sioux nation in South Dakota, US, started gathering buffalo on the Wolakota Buffalo Range. Two years to be exact, and now the herd is upwards of 750 animals and the tribe hopes this will help to grow to 1,200 by 2023. They believe it should be the biggest indigenous-owned buffalo herd in the country.

This is part of a wider trend in the US. Spurred by combating the ongoing food shortages, reaching monetary sustainability, reestablishing ecosystems and reviving tribal culture. These tribes currently manage around 55 herds across 19 states, as indicated by the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

“Wolakota is unique, because it isn’t just about taking care of the land, or creating jobs, or feeding our people, or bringing back our culture; it is about all of those things,” Clay Colombe, CEO of Rosebud tribe’s economic development agency, told PN.

Millions of buffalo once roamed the US. From Alaska in the forests and the fields of Mexico to Nevada’s Great Basin and the eastern Appalachian Mountains. But by the late 1800s, there were only a couple hundred bison left in the US after European pioneers pushed west, this resulted in a further reduction of the animal’s habitat as they were hunted to the point of nearly being extinct in the nineteenth century. Hunting bison for food, clothing, and shelter is one thing, but back then, the hunters from the East killed almost exclusively for sport. That’s when the native Americans were forced on to reservation, damaging a sacred bond. The cows that largely replaced them frequently killed off any native vegetation.

“Buffalo are central to who we are as Lakota. When we bring them back on to our land and into our lives, it heals and strengthens us,” said Clay Colombe. 

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Presently, US indigenous leaders trust Congress will assist the tribes with returning the bison to their lands: the Indian Buffalo Management Act was passed by the House of Representatives in December and is anticipating Senate endorsement, and had it not been for the few private individuals working with tribes, states and the Interior Department, the buffalo would be extinct today.

The first animal that was harvested by Wolakota helped to feed members of the Rosebud Sioux reservation community who were homeless. Colombe said he trusted the venture would help to illustrate exactly what’s possible when indigenous-led thoughts get sufficient support and subsidizing. 

“We want to inspire others – indigenous and non-indigenous – to go out and do something even bigger and more impactful,” Colombe said. “We have been able to build the largest Native-managed buffalo herd in one of the poorest counties in the US. If we can do it here, projects like this can be done anywhere.”

There are many advantages to reviving the bison culture to what it used to be. They can live up to 20 years old, but some live to be older. Cows can begin breeding at the tender age of 2 and only have one baby at a time. However, for males, the prime breeding age is 6-10 years. They also hold the title of being the largest mammal in the US. Male bison (called bulls) can weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds and stand a whopping 6 feet tall, while females (called cows) can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of 4-5 feet. Being careful, I think it is possible to bring this mythical creature back from the brink, and of course in due time help combat food shortages.