Meet the Group That's Been Bringing Bison Back to Tribal Lands for 30 Years | Civil Eats

Meet the Group That’s Been Bringing Bison Back to Tribal Lands for 30 Years

For the past three decades, the InterTribal Buffalo Council has worked to reconnect Indigenous people with bison, reviving traditions and healing communities.

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Harlem, Montana, has gathered an estimated 45 buffalo during two ITBC transfers in 1996 and 2014. (Photo courtesy of the InterTribal Buffalo Council)

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Harlem, Montana, has gathered an estimated 45 buffalo during two ITBC transfers in 1996 and 2014. (Photo courtesy of the InterTribal Buffalo Council)

Whenever Wayne Frederick watches the American bison roaming around the sprawling South Dakota prairies of the Rosebud Indian Reservation, he sees a piece of himself. The 43-year-old Rosebud Sioux member and tribal council representative was born into the family tradition of bison herd management and has since dedicated nearly 37 years of his life to the hooved beasts.

“In times of question or hardship, I was lucky that I had those animals most of my life to ground me,” Frederick told Civil Eats. “If people were able to see this more often, you’d really respect life a lot more and where we came from.”

His father, Tom Frederick, who once worked as director of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources and Game, Fish, and Parks, had always dreamed of bringing the buffalo back to Rosebud. It eventually became a reality in 1980, when the U.S. Department of the Interior approved his request to acquire 25 buffalo as surplus property from the Wind Cave National Park’s historic herd in the Southern Black Hills. Forty-two years later, the Rosebud herd has grown to 300 under the department’s watch, and Wayne Frederick had a chance to manage it from 2011 to 2014.

Frederick helped start another small herd with his father in 1999 at the Sinte Gleska University, a tribal public land-grant university located on the reservation, alongside university President Lionel Bordeaux. It began with 13 bison, each symbolizing a traditional moon of their calendar year, that arrived from Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska. By 2001, the herd had increased to 100 buffalo from the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado.

Both tribally owned and operated herds, and others like them, are especially significant, as the beloved buffalo have been brought back from the brink of extinction since the dawn of the 20th century. Historical figures indicate that 30 to 60 million once wandered North America at their peak. But due to the rise of transcontinental railroads, unregulated hide hunting, drought, and the U.S. Army’s eradication of some northern herds, the total population dwindled drastically to only 325 wild buffalo by 1884.

An 1870s illustration depicts hunters shooting buffalo along the Kansas-Pacific Railroad’s train tracks. (Library of Congress)

An 1870s newspaper illustration with a caption reading, “The far west – shooting buffalo on the line of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad.” (Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress)

“We see ourselves. They’re a resilient animal, just as we are resilient people,” said Troy Heinert, a Rosebud Sioux member and Democratic minority leader in the South Dakota Senate. “We’ve still been able to maintain our identity, and that is extremely important to us. When you’re handling those animals, they recognize that.”

“There are ceremonies and songs that may not have been performed or sung for decades. But when we bring those buffalo back, that tradition is revived. There’s no greater feeling than that.”

In November, Heinert, 49, became executive director at the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), which originated in 1992 as the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. This year, ITBC celebrates three decades of buffalo stewardship after transporting 20,000 animals to 55 tribal herds owned and operated by 76 member Nations. More than half of them were transferred from national parks, wildlife refuges, nature preserves, and private owners through the federal surplus property program—the same process that Frederick utilized in 1980.

The process of repopulating Indian Country has been a healing experience, especially for communities that lost contact with the buffalo for generations.

“There are ceremonies and songs that may not have been performed or sung for decades. But when we bring those buffalo back, that tradition is revived,” Heinert said. “There’s no greater feeling than that.”

The connections that have been built among member tribes are also noteworthy. Each time an eagle feather is tied to the council’s ceremonial staff, it symbolizes the welcoming of a new federally recognized tribe. Heinert says this annual tradition “serves as a reminder that all decisions to be made need to reflect the Nations and people we serve.”

Yet despite this sense of collective triumph, the ITBC and its members still struggle to grow their herds and protect their way of life. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers reclassifying the animal and requiring more inspections, some tribal members worry that the shift could inadvertently undercut their autonomy over bison for agricultural and cultural purposes.

Preserving Genetic Stock—in Yellowstone and Beyond

Yellowstone National Park’s revitalized population of more than 5,000 bison are widely considered to be the most sacred since they’re “the last of the free roaming wild buffalo that are genetically as close to the buffalo that provided for our ancestors,” Heinert said.

The ITBC’s goal is to get as many disease-free buffalo from Yellowstone back to Indian Country under tribal control, primarily through the federal surplus program. Their prized sequences are sought to diversify preexisting herds, and in some cases, tribe members will even isolate the Yellowstone buffalo to create herds solely for cultural use, separate from slaughter.

But all wild bison from Yellowstone must undergo a multi-year quarantine monitoring process that lasts up to three years. It’s a lengthy timeline approved by the state of Montana, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the National Park Service. Half of all Yellowstone bison have tested positive for brucellosis, a bacterial disease largely affecting cattle species, according to APHIS.

A herd of buffalo rumble through the wooded grasslands of Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

A herd of buffalo rumble through the wooded grasslands of Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

In addition to its buffalo rematriation efforts, ITBC offers training and resources for herders to address issues ranging from health and safety to diseases and genetics. Creating distribution channels to feed communities is another top priority and member benefit. Whether ITBC is making member introductions to facilitate regional buffalo meat sales or sharing the products that are processed and stored at its headquarters for direct sale to tribes, the organization prides itself on providing nationwide access to nutritious meat while impacting the lives of more than a million tribal residents.

But the intertribal organization has its limitations, especially for individual ranchers.

Frederick once served as ITBC’s regional director for North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Minnesota, and he sat on its board of directors from 2011 to 2015. Today, he oversees the oldest Native-owned ranch in South Dakota’s Todd County, originally an allotment given to his sixth great-grandmother Tawacin Waste Win, which translates to “good and compassionate woman.” He and his wife, Alex Romero Frederick, have raised every sort of livestock on their own farm except buffalo, the “Pté Oyate”—the Lakota name gifted to the largest land mammal in North America. He strongly advocated for private bison ownership for Indigenous ranchers—devoid of any affiliation to tribal leadership.

“Not everything can be tribal government-led, and we have to involve people individually,” Frederick insisted. “I hope [ITBC] can expand their reach to help individual tribal producers who take the initiative to do infrastructure on their properties and get the buffalo economy back to the people.”

Although Frederick learned how to raise buffalo from his father, the herds themselves are predominantly matriarchal in nature, typically with a lead cow in charge—mirroring the matrilineal clan systems of tribes that still reside on the Great Plains.

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“We are fully aware of the federal policy that nearly eradicated the buffalo. It wasn’t because the federal government was mad at the buffalo; that was an attempt to control us, as Indigenous people.”

Working in tandem with the federal government takes trust, which was historically violated. The U.S. has a responsibility to recognize herding traditions through their treaty obligations—the same government that for over a century sought to annihilate Native populations and drive them from their lands.

“We are fully aware of the federal policy that nearly eradicated the buffalo,” Heinert admitted. “It wasn’t because the federal government was mad at the buffalo; that was an attempt to control us, as Indigenous people.”

That history enshrines efforts to preserve the buffalo with a particular symbolic power—as if by bringing their populations back to abundance, Indigenous peoples can do the same for themselves.

Shared Ambition to Restore Bison

ITBC works with a diverse coalition of private, public, government, and tribal stakeholders to create an intricate bison management system with a common goal to rematriate the keystone species back to restore their natural grassland habitats.

One such group is South Dakota State University’s West River Research and Extension regional center, home to the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies (BisonCOE), which launched in September 2020 to better engage with bison managers from all backgrounds.

Established as a partnership between the university, the National Bison Association (NBA) and National Buffalo Foundation, the center focuses on research to improve the health of bison herds and economic viability of private and tribal producers. These groups see bison herding—which is —as beneficial for soil health, and an important way for sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere.

“Enabling climate-smart agricultural commodities such as bison, bison meat, and bison by-products—especially those that are from minority- and BIPOC-owned [ranches]—is critical for enhancing economic, ecologic, and cultural sustainability for local communities,” Jeff Martin, director of research at BisonCOE, told Civil Eats.

With an 11-member board of directors guiding and granting funding for the research aims of BisonCOE, the center has exclusively designated two three-year rotating tribal seats: one appointee represents tribal universities, and another acts as a liaison to ITBC member tribes. According to Martin, this structure has created equity and inclusivity in their deliberative discussions.

Buffalo are uniquely situated in the agricultural landscape. They are essentially considered both livestock and game-wildlife. With multiple definitions come multiple uses, Martin said. Today, there are roughly 31,000 free-roaming buffalo in the wild on public lands and total population estimates ranging from 400,000 to half a million bison across North America. And consumer demand is also driving the sustainable growth of meat packing facilities among tribal and commercial owners, thus expanding conservation efforts in the process.

“We say, eat them to save them, which does sound a little jarring at the outset,” said Jim Matheson, NBA’s executive director. “But it certainly gets people’s attention.”

Matheson estimates that approximately 70,000 head of buffalo were processed in North America last year—a new record. The bison industry has been booming, both for tribal and commercial producers, partly because of a memorandum of understanding signed by ITBC and NBA in 2014, which has been expanded upon in January to ensure “a common commitment to the success of private and tribal producers.”

The ITBC, NBA, and the Wildlife Conservation Society also lobbied together for the National Bison Legacy Act, a bill acknowledging buffalo as the national mammal. In 2016, President Barack Obama signed it into law.

“We’ve got such a good community around us. We love this animal,” Matheson said. “We’re all able to collaborate together very effectively.”

In 2021, ITBC also partnered with The Nature Conservancy to bring an estimated 130 bison from its preserves in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri to tribes in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and the Seneca Nation’s Gakwi:yo:h Farms in New York.

Dennis Jorgensen, a wildlife biologist and the World Wildlife Fund’s bison initiative manager in the Northern Great Plains, credits ITBC with steering the way for academics, conservationists, and industry leaders to heed their wisdom.

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“The InterTribal Buffalo Council is really the example of how you work with communities and tribes to bring buffalo back,” said Jorgensen. “I’m impressed with their ability to support and provide guidance to that many different Nations. We work with a handful of Nations, and that’s challenging enough.”

A herd of buffalo cross the Madison River in the snow capped mountains of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Library of Congress)

A herd of buffalo cross the Madison River in the snow-capped mountains of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress)

Jorgensen said that 1 in 4 residents on tribal reservations suffer from food insecurity within his jurisdiction. Food can be scarce, which is why the World Wildlife Fund is backing Rosebud’s Wolakota Buffalo Range, the largest Native-owned and operated buffalo herd in North America. Frederick has helped establish the herd, which is separate from the other two that he and his father assembled decades prior. The Rosebud Economic Development Corporation created a five-year business plan in 2020 to relocate 1,500 buffalo across 28,000 acres at the cost of $5 million.

“The projects that bring tribal land back into tribal hands and restore buffalo create an opportunity for food sovereignty, [and an] economic and cultural restoration engine,” Jorgensen said. “ITBC and groups like ours that have followed in their footsteps are working to support them.”

Cultural Traditions Under Threat

As bison herds continue to grow, this year’s passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act directed the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to participate in a series of listening sessions to explore options for relabeling buffalo as an “amenable species” for regulators. The renewed effort to reconsider classifying bison meat’s non-amenable status would break from a 116-year precedent set by the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. It ruled that buffalo is not subject to USDA-mandated inspection unless it is sold off the reservation.

There are three types of inspection: state, federal, and custom-exempt. These options are the same for bison and beef except for the fact that bison producers must voluntarily pay for federal inspection to ship their products across state lines. Although most tribal producers aren’t selling buffalo meat off their reservations—thus foregoing state or federal inspection requirements—tribal communities are worried that the reclassification and subsequent inspections would disrupt traditional field kill and slaughtering practices dating back a millennium and prevent tribes from keeping specific body parts for cultural purposes.

Traditional buffalo harvesting is a ceremony in itself. To respectfully honor a healthy kill, the hunters feed the spirits of the animals set for slaughter and those who have already passed on. A prayer calling for good health and understanding is offered, since their “revered relative” is “making a sacrifice of its life to feed and take care of us,” Frederick said.

“If it were amenable, that animal has to be pre-identified and individually inspected before it can be slaughtered, which really goes against their cultural approach to this, which we very much respect,” NBA’s Matheson explained. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

USDA FSIS Administrator Paul Kiecker personally thanked ITBC for hosting a series of congressionally mandated listening sessions with the Quapaw Tribe, Osage Nation of Oklahoma, and Makoce Agriculture Development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“As part of these visits and listening sessions with tribal representatives, it was made very clear to me that buffalo also hold a cultural, historical, and environmental significance distinct from their viability as a commercial meat product,” Kiecker told Civil Eats in a statement.

Kiecker prioritized meeting with tribal herders before speaking with large and small, non-tribal commercial producers and processors, said Matheson, who attended the South Dakota listening session in early June. Kiecker’s agency is now compiling a congressional briefing highlighting overall feedback and the challenges and potential paths forward for relabeling bison as an amenable species.

Each body part of the buffalo carries significance, Heinert says, adding that maintaining open lines of communication with the USDA is paramount in protecting their way of life since the agency can prohibit them from keeping hides, skins, horns, and skulls.

“We understand that there are private producers that use buffalo as a commodity. Tribes view buffalo differently,” said Heinert. “What we’re trying to do is recreate this tribal buffalo economy, maintaining the cultural importance of buffalo wealth while being able to use the entire animal like we once did.”

Gabriel Pietrorazio is an award-winning journalist who closely covers Indigenous affairs, food and agriculture, politics, as well as crime and justice. He earned a master’s degree from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park in 2021. Read more >

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  1. It is because of great articles like this that I think Civil Eats is the best source on issues affecting smallholders as well as farmers practising sustainable farming. Great journalism here.

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