When the gates to the bison’s pen opened, some sauntered onto the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s lands in South Dakota. Others ran for the 8,500 acres of newly fenced prairie. Some circled the pen four times before heading out to the open range. As these new residents settled in, they formed the herd that launched one of the most ambitious tribally managed bison reintroduction projects in the United States and restored a species that had been missing from these lands for more than a century.
Members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, or the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, had come to welcome them, leaning over the fences and calling out a send-off while bison trotted onto the tawny grasslands. The bison’s return in October 2020 not only restored a vital piece to this Plains ecosystem but also renewed connections to cultural practices, spurred economic development and reinforced food and tribal sovereignty.
Wizipan Little Elk, a tribal member who was then the CEO of the tribe’s Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) that manages the herd, was among those who witnessed this significant event. “It’s a part of our revitalization,” Little Elk said. “Like many Plains tribes, the Lakota were buffalo people, and our identity is intrinsically tied to buffalo from a spiritual and cultural perspective. We basically say that when the buffalo are strong, then we will be strong again.”
The 135 bison that seeded this herd were relocated from two national parks and the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve in Montana. Additional arrivals in late 2021 brought that number to about 750, significant progress toward the goal of managing up to 1,500 of the animals by 2025.
Little Elk, who is now principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior, said this dream of restoring bison to his tribe’s lands was gifted to him by a Sicangu Lakota Oyate mentor, Rosalie Little Thunder, who envisioned a million acres of land for bison. The Wolakota Buffalo Range on which they now roam has nearly 28,000 acres of possible grazing land to start, but progress establishing this herd went “crazy fast,” he said, a sign their work builds on their elders’ prayers.
Bison are just one of many species that Native peoples are helping bring back to the landscape as they strive to reestablish healthier ecosystems and reassert traditional knowledge and land management. Their return can help heal the land and Native communities.
Tens of millions of bison are thought to have once roamed across about two-thirds of North America. After Europeans arrived and began to move West during the 1800s, they targeted and slaughtered millions of the animals. The near eradication of bison from North America paralleled the relocation of Native Americans onto reservation lands beginning in the mid-1800s. By the early 1900s, bison could only be found in private herds and two remnant wild populations in what is now Alberta, Canada, and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports about 14,000 American bison (which includes the North American Plains bison as well as the wood bison in Alaska and Canada) exist in the wild and that the species is considered near threatened. About 31,000 more are in managed herds.
“When we talk about this genocide that was committed against Indigenous people, we also have to talk about the genocide against buffalo,” Little Elk said. “That was policy and deliberate effort to eliminate buffalo as part of the process to take Indian lands and as part of the colonization process.” Returning bison to Native lands therefore can help not only restore a species but reinforce tribal sovereignty.
Bison also provide cascading benefits for birds, insects and other animals as well as plants and even soil. These large ungulates wallow, or roll, in muddy depressions to cool down in summer and deter biting insects, creating pondlike pits that support aquatic wildlife, bump up biodiversity and serve as water reserves during drought. Seeds tangled in their fur are also transplanted in the process. The team managing the bison at the Wolakota Buffalo Range has committed to tracking those ecological changes and managing the range lands sustainably so healthier grasslands can mitigate climate change.
The InterTribal Buffalo Council reports that during the past three decades, 69 tribes in 19 U.S. states have restored more than 20,000 bison to tribal lands. The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in northern Montana not only host one of the largest herds, some 200 animals, but also have the only facility on tribal lands for the final phase of the years-long quarantine process required to relocate bison from Yellowstone National Park. Bison can carry brucellosis, a disease contagious to livestock. Although no cases of transmission of the disease to cattle have been confirmed, bison found wandering outside the park have been killed to prevent this. In recent years, however, some bison have been quarantined and then seeded herds on tribal lands, making tribes an essential component for this species’ conservation.
Brendan Moynahan, a science advisor with the National Park Service who chairs the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bison Working Group, said tribal bison restoration projects have a great potential for success. “We’re starting to do exactly the thing that is so difficult, but we should have been doing all along, and that is working to expressly link wildlife conservation and culture,” he said. “We’re really good at separating nature from humans, and that’s not the bison story. . . . It’s not just about the species. It is about the landscape, people, history, social justice, reconciliation. It’s about all these big, big things.”
Nature’s Clean-up Crews
Ties between the environment and culture have been on Tiana Williams-Claussen’s mind. As director of the Yurok Tribe’s Wildlife Department, she has worked since 2008 to return California condors to her tribe’s ancestral homelands in northern California. Condors are prominent in her tribe’s origin stories, and their feathers and songs are essential to its World Renewal Ceremonies.
“That’s been a dream, to see condors in the sky again,” said Williams-Claussen. “Yurok Tribe people consider themselves to be world-renewal people. It’s our foundational reason for existing, so we host World Renewal Ceremonies on a two-year cycle along with our neighboring tribes, who have a similar ethos. He [the condor] ties very deeply into that world-renewal aspect of ourselves.”
Williams-Claussen said condors also make an enormous ecological contribution. At more than 20 pounds, California condors are North America’s largest land bird. When it comes to devouring rotting animal carcasses, other vultures simply aren’t as efficient clean-up crews.
Just 200 years ago, the bird could be seen throughout the American West and Southwest. Yet with now only about 500 California condors known to exist in northern Arizona, southern Utah and California, restoring this bird to its former habitat will be no easy feat.
The Yurok Tribe established the Northern California Condor Restoration Program with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in hopes to restore the birds to their ancestral territory on what is now Redwood National and State Parks. With plenty of open space for them to forage, this ideal habitat is also just a few miles as the bird flies from what is now the Yurok Indian Reservation.
Yurok elders set this goal in 2003, but as condors are a federally protected endangered species, it’s taken almost two decades to accumulate staff, funding and the necessary environmental approvals to construct a holding pen that could host condors relocated from breeding and other wildlife facilities until they were ready for release. These vultures have nearly 10-foot wing spans and they need a great amount of room to fly, feed and bathe as they adjust to their new home base, explained Williams-Claussen. The birds’ flight pen is a fenced area designed to be large enough to hold up to a dozen condors at a time and will soon be completed. The program’s first four juvenile condors are expected to be released this spring.
A Bugle Returns
Cooperative efforts to restore wildlife between tribal and nontribal natural resources managers have been successful in other states. The Ho-Chunk Nation and St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to restore elk to the central and northern parts of this state.
Elk once lived throughout North America. They were exterminated in Wisconsin by the late 1880s and the state started reintroduction efforts elsewhere in 1995. The herd in Black River Falls area near Ho-Chunk lands in central Wisconsin was launched in 2015 and 2016 with 73 elk from Kentucky. Another 91 elk were transferred between 2017 and 2019 to Clam Lake area in the north, about an hour from Chippewa lands.
Traditionally, elk provided the Ho-Chunk people with food, leather, bone for tools as well as the namesake for one of their 12 clans. Brandon Bleuer, the Ho-Chunk Nation’s forestry division manager who represents the nation on state elk projects, said, “So it was pretty important for the Ho-Chunk people to see elk brought back.”
The state’s elk management plan includes mention of that lineage, and the roles of the Elk Clan as messengers, fire distributors and environmentalists. With their return, the tribe and state wildlife managers have arranged to deliver half the carcasses found—whether poached, accidentally shot during deer season or struck by a vehicle—to tribal members for meat.
The elk may also draw tourists. Hunting and fishing guides in the northern part of Wisconsin, which has an older, bigger herd, also now lead visitors with binoculars to the Black River Falls area in hopes of glimpsing an elk or hearing it bugle. “A lot of people will hopefully want to come view the elk because Wisconsin hasn’t had them in anybody’s lifetime that’s alive now,” Bleuer said.
Elk populations can grow slowly, as females can only be impregnated during a couple of days a year, take more than eight months to gestate and typically only give birth to one calf. The count in the Black River Falls area is up to 115, and the Ho-Chunk Nation hopes this number will grow to 350. The Clam Lake population has reached more than 300 and during the past four years, five to 10 bulls were hunted, with tribal hunters given half of the hunt quota each year.
A Living Legacy
Another long animal absence is ending in North Carolina’s rivers, where sicklefin redhorse are being returned to the homelands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. The fish is a type of sucker that is endemic to in the Hiwassee and Little Tennessee River basins of western North Carolina and northern Georgia. The Cherokee people have had a name for it, “u-gii-da-tli,” which roughly translates as “it has a feather,” referencing its long dorsal fin. Yet the scientific community didn’t recognize sicklefin redhorse as a distinct species until 1992.
“I think there’s a lot of pride knowing that this fish was identified and valued as unique long before Western science caught up,” said Mike LaVoie, natural resources manager with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. “It speaks to the value of traditional ecological knowledge.”
Traditionally, the fish was an important food for the Cherokee people. They captured sicklefin redhorse during the fish’s annual migration with weirs, giant Vs of rock they constructed to funnel the fish into a trap. Today, however, it has been eliminated from half of its range and listed as endangered in Georgia and threatened in North Carolina.
Working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners, LaVoie is leading an effort to replenish the population. Tribal elementary school kids are helping, spending summer days adding fingerling redhorse to nearby waterways where dams and pollution have wiped them out. Altogether, the tribe has put more than 10,000 fish into rivers and streams in the region.
Wildlife managers are also inserting radio tags in adult fish and collecting water samples to evaluate them for sicklefin redhorse DNA to monitor the population here and in other rivers. The tribe is now working with partners to evaluate the possibility of removing Ela Dam on the Oconaluftee River, which currently impedes the natural migration of the fish to waters on Cherokee lands.
“It’s an exciting time to be working for tribes as they continue to gain capacity and exhibit sovereignty and self-governance,” LaVoie said. “Tribes are in a unique position to lead our nation’s conservation efforts.”
Planning for a Changing Planet
Dire predictions around drought related to climate change compelled Erik White, the wildlife program manager for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, to launch an effort to move beaver into the tribe’s ancestral lands in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southern Washington state. The advice he’d heard at climate change workshops was to “inventory what you have so you know what you lost,” he said.
In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, the tribe decided to strive to bring beaver back to create ponds that will mitigate some lost snowpack, easing the forest ecosystem into hotter, drier years ahead. “It won’t make up for [climate change], but it could make it less bad,” White said.
Since 2019, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, to relocate so-called “nuisance” beavers to this forest. The agency now live traps beavers flooding roads or trails and has provided the tribe with more than 140 beavers. The ponds the beaver have created now house fish and amphibians, raise the water table, recharge aquifers and can stall wildfires.
White was inspired by the beaver relocation project of the Tulalip Tribe in northwestern Washington state. This tribe cited its treaty fishing rights as a reason to relocate beaver into watersheds as this would improve conditions for fish, including coho salmon, a significant food source for its people.
For the Cowlitz people, tribal spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl wrote the beaver was regaled in stories and seen as an icon of wisdom, industriousness and persistence. Engdahl continued, “Spiritually, the beaver is known as a changer. Possibly more than any other animal, beaver changes the landscape and waterscape of streams and creeks, creating a whole different ecosystem.”
These efforts to restore species are just a few being led by tribes across the country. “Tribes are kind of the first conservationists,” said Julie Thorstenson (Lakota). She is executive director of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, a nonprofit founded in the 1980s to assist Native American and Alaska Native tribes with conservation work. “They recognize that every species and every animal has a place in the ecosystem,” she said.
But funding and capacity constrain these efforts. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Grants can kickstart projects for any culturally significant wildlife, not just threatened and endangered species. They’ve helped the Karuk Tribe return porcupines to its lands in California and the Pueblo of Santa Ana in New Mexico add turkeys, sources of quills and feathers for traditional regalia. However, these grants are capped at $200,000, so they can’t sustain ongoing programs, Thorstenson said. That tribes have piecemealed funding and staff to continue this work, she added, is testament to how much these projects matter.
REDCO worked with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to lease the 28,000 acres on the Wolakota Buffalo Range and fundraise millions toward the $4 million estimated total costs to maintain the project. The WWF also funded a feasibility study, which allowed REDCO to create a business plan that demonstrated the long-term financial sustainability of the project.
“It’s not that the economics is the driver; it’s that the economics can make sense,” said Dennis Jorgensen, the bison initiative coordinator for the WWF who helped with this project and others in the northern Plains. “Restoring bison to these communities doesn’t have to be an economic burden. It can be an economic boon, and it can bring food sovereignty and pride and opportunity and investment.”
When bison were released on Sicangu Lakota Oyate lands in 2020, they were given a welcoming ceremony. Spiritual leaders set a painted buffalo skull, bundles of sage and sweetgrass, chokecherries, corn and a buffalo robe on the ground as offerings for the return of their relatives. Those offerings were then encircled by children, then women, and then men, who formed the outer ring.
“I always think, what if all of society did that, and circled up our institutions and our money and our resources around children?” Little Elk said. “How much of a better world would we have if we just took that one lesson from buffalo?”