BILLINGS, Mont. | In subzero temperatures on Wednesday morning, 35 Montana bison arrived at their new home on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
"When the buffalo are strong, we will be strong," said Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, which oversees the Wolakota Buffalo Range near Mission, South Dakota.
The bison were a gift from American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s goal is to grow the herd to 1,500 bison spread across 28,000 acres, which would make it the largest tribal-managed bison herd in the United States. Right now the herd is composed of 134 bison. American Prairie has agreed to contribute up to 170 bison to support the tribe’s efforts.
"We are doing our part to ensure the genetic health and longevity of our buffalo relatives," Wizipan said in a post on the tribe’s website.
Another four bison were shipped from APR’s herd to One Spirit, a nonprofit organization that serves the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.
According to its website, One Spirit is a collective of Oglala Lakota and volunteers working to “support the Lakota community by providing resources that allow them to meet the needs of their people according to their own culture, traditions and values.”
“We prioritize partnerships with native tribes who are working to restore a deeper cultural, spiritual and economic connection to the animal,” said Alison Fox, CEO of American Prairie Reserve.
Since 2009, APR has distributed more than 400 bison to conservation and tribal herds in Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, South Dakota and Oklahoma. That includes sending bison in 2011, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 to the Blackfeet Nation, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community in Montana.
“The return of the buffalo to our lands is a common goal and vision shared with tribal elders, the tribal council, wildlife managers and spiritual leaders,” said Bronc Speak Thunder, who helps manage the Fort Belknap bison program.
“Wolakota is showing what is possible when public and private partners come together in support of native-led efforts,” Little Elk added. “The partnership with American Prairie will allow us to accelerate our cultural, ecological, and economic impact.”
The bison were the first to be transferred under expanded disease management protocols negotiated by APR with the Phillips County Conservation District. Members of the district attended the bison handling at the invitation of the nonprofit group.
Under the terms of the agreement, APR receives a 10-year variance from the Phillips County Bison Grazing Ordinance. In return, the Reserve will provide a disease identification and management plan, disease testing for 325 bison in the first five years, scaling back to 150 bison in the next five years. All of the tested bison will be tagged. APR also agreed to a brucellosis vaccination commitment, a treatment plan for escaped bison, and annual meetings providing the opportunity for wide-ranging discussions related to bison and grazing.
Bison handling at APR is a management tool done to monitor overall herd health, test for disease, comply with state and federal regulations, and to maintain appropriate stocking rates, according to Scott Heidebrink, senior bison restoration manager.
“We manage the animals as wildlife to the extent possible, but our bison handling is done as needed to maintain the health of the herd, monitor for any problems, and demonstrate our commitment to being good neighbors,” Heidebrink said.
APR began buying ranches in 2005 in Phillips County with a goal to eventually establish a 3 million-acre wildlife reserve, when combined with surrounding federal lands. Bison the APR raises are classified as livestock.
So far the group has grown its herd to 800 animals. Its goal is to one day reach 10,000 bison. To that end, APR has built up a genetically diverse herd by acquiring animals from across the country and Canada.
“The bison provided by American Prairie have diverse and pure genetics and help to improve the long-term health of our herd,” Fox said.