Grasslands on what is now the South Unit of Badlands National Park could become home to a herd of more than 1,000 bison as part of a long-range plan to establish a new national park.
The project is still in the planning stages, but bison could be reintroduced on parts of the 133,000-acre South Unit, located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in northwest Shannon County, starting in 2015, according to Ruth Brown, Eagle Nest District representative for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
“There’s always been a dream of a lot of our elders. It’s part of our culture. Buffalo were our bread and butter for a lot of years,” she said. “I’ve been working on this project for almost 20 years, and it’s going to be a reality now.”
Trudy Ecoffey of the Intertribal Buffalo Council of Rapid City presented plans to restore bison to the South Unit at last week’s annual meeting of The Nature Conservancy’s Western Dakotas Program in Rapid City.
She said the tribe first sought to keep the land as a park and later wished to take the lead role in managing a new park in a partnership with the National Park Service. Always included, she said, was the establishment of a bison herd.
“That whole initiative, no matter what alternative they were looking at, always mentioned reintroducing bison to the South Unit,” Ecoffey said.
The rugged Mako Sica (Lakota for bad lands) is made up of eroded pinnacles, spires and buttes and mixed-grass prairie. The area was designated as a national monument in 1929 with a tract of slightly more than 100,000 acres and named a national park by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939.
In 1976, the South Unit was added to bring the park to its current size of 244,300 acres.
“Even in the '70s when it became part of the National Park Service, the intent was to introduce bison to the South Unit,” Ecoffey said.
The tribe has been working with the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which was established in 1992 to coordinate buffalo programs and help tribes obtain surplus buffalo.
Ecoffey said a study authorized this summer by the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the World Wildlife Fund indicated that grassland areas of the Stronghold Unit, which makes up the largest portion of the South Unit, could sustain a herd of more than 1,000 buffalo.
The tribe currently has about 800 buffalo in three main pastures, but the demand for buffalo, both as a source of meat as well as a symbol of Lakota culture, is expected to increase as the population on the Pine Ridge increases, Ecoffey said.
“So this was the perfect opportunity to increase the tribal buffalo herd size,” Ecoffey said. “This whole South Unit initiative is not just part of the Badlands South Unit but some extra tribal land adjacent to the park so it’s going to be a real cooperative effort between the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe to make this work,” she said.
Brown said ranchers currently grazing cattle on lands leased from the tribe have a year to move their herds elsewhere. Plans are also in the works for construction of nearly 80 miles of fence capable of containing buffalo, while allowing other wildlife, including bighorn sheep and antelope, to come and go.
Ecoffey said the cost to install fencing on the rugged terrain is estimated to be in excess of $1 million, including measures to deal with significant archaeological and paleontological sites as well as the potential of encountering unexploded ordnance from the site of the old World War II bombing range.
Badlands National Park has been donating bison from the main section of the park north of the Pine Ridge Reservation to tribes off and on for several years, she said. The park’s roundup is set for the third week in October, with this year’s surplus, estimated at 250 animals, slated for tribes in Oklahoma, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana, she said.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe hopes to start building its new herd once a management plan is developed to monitor impact from the herd on grassland and water supplies, along with plans to move animals in drought years.
Ecoffey hopes a new national park, formed out of the Badlands South Unit, and a conservation buffalo herd will help bring jobs and development to a traditionally depressed economic area.
The South Unit’s White River Visitor Center is currently open only seasonally and hosts about 10,000 visitors per year.
“We’re hoping in time to get more buildings out there to accommodate more people from other places to increase that tourism business,” she said.