For years, Wayne Frederick and his father managed a herd of bison held by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of south-central South Dakota.
But now, a unique partnership between a tribal nonprofit that helps Native ranchers raise bison and the Nature Conservancy is helping Frederick start his own commercial herd.
Four bison were delivered to Frederick’s Rez Raised Ranch near Winner, S.D., last week, and another 10 are scheduled to arrive. They will be released on pastures where his family just recently completed installing six-wire fence to hold the massive animals, which can weigh up a ton and be 6 feet tall.
The 43-year-old rancher is thankful for the help from the Kyle, S.D.-based Tanka Fund, as well as the Nature Conservancy, to return an animal that once blanketed the Plains, providing his people with food, tools and shelter.
“There’s a lot of meaning to it — not only are they a keystone species for the area, they’re a cultural animal,” Frederick said. “The cultural impact and meaning is much bigger than raising beef animals.”
The delivery of the bison is part of a larger, decades-long effort to repopulate the Plains with bison and re-establish a buffalo economy that enriches Native communities and ranchers.
30th anniversary of effort
The InterTribal Buffalo Council has been working for three decades to reintroduce bison to Indian tribes and has distributed about 20,000 buffalo over that period. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the council is planning its largest transfer of bison yet, 1,500 buffalo to tribes in six states.
“The significance of buffalo extends beyond their physical presence on the land,” said Troy Heinert, a Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) and the executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council.
Heinert said bison “represent a positive force toward spiritual and cultural revitalization, ecological restoration and conservation,” as well as a step toward food sovereignty, improved health and economic development.
‘On a mission’
The Tanka Fund (“tanka” means “great” or “large” in Lakota) has a mission of helping private Native ranchers obtain bison and a goal of re-establishing bison on 1 million acres of virgin prairie.
“Tanka Fund is on a mission to bring buffalo back to Indian Country,” said Trudy Ecoffey, the executive director of the nonprofit.
“Buffalo are integral to the lands, lives and economies of Native People,” Ecoffey said.
Bison, which once numbered an estimated 60 million animals, were nearly wiped out by the 1890s by overhunting for their hides and by troops who were ordered to kill them to deny food to Native tribes. Today, thanks to conservation efforts and demand for leaner meat, there are more than 400,000 buffalo across the U.S.
Frederick has been raising cattle on the 4,000-acre family ranch for more than a decade. But he said that bison provide a much healthier meat protein.
Lost pounds eating bison
He said he lost 60 pounds after switching his diet from fast food, during his days at Northeast Community College in Norfolk, to eating the leaner bison twice a day.
“Food that’s cheap is usually not good for you,” Frederick said.
About 330 of the 800 bison being provided by the Nature Conservancy to the Tanka Fund and InterTribal Buffalo Council this year are coming from the Niobrara Valley Preserve, which encompasses 56,000 acres along a 25-mile stretch of the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska.
The Conservancy has about 6,600 bison that it manages on preserves across the country, and it has been raising buffalo for more than two decades to help manage its grasslands.
Bison hair helps nests
Not only is regular grazing beneficial to managing prairies, but bison also help other grassland creatures.
For instance, the furry hair that bison shed each spring is used by grassland birds for nests and by burrowing mammals for their burrows, said Corissa Busse, the western South Dakota program manager for the Nature Conservancy.
This is the second year the Conservancy has provided surplus bison to the Tanka Fund to distribute to Native ranchers, Busse said, but this year represents the largest transfer of animals to the fund and the Intertribal Buffalo Council. In the past, excess bison were sold at auction.
Excited to participate
“We are really excited about the incredible work these organizations are doing to help Native communities,” Busse said.
In Winner, Frederick said he is eager to get his bison herd going.
His family, including his wife, Alexandra Romero, son Cedar and daughter Summer, all helped in fencing two sections of pasture for the bison, which require 5-foot-high fences.
Frederick said his father, Thomas, helped found the Rosebud Tribe’s bison program and had always discouraged the family from starting a commercial herd while working for the tribe.
Neither of the Fredericks at this point work for the tribal bison project, which led Wayne to reach out to the Tanka Fund, which arranged for the shipment of bison.
‘The dream came true’
Frederick said the family plans to approach marketing the bison as it did its grass-fed beef — by providing it at affordable prices to tribal members, through farmer’s markets and in sales direct from the ranch.
Raising bison, he said, makes a lot of sense for the family ranch now. Prices for bison are good, and the animals take less hands-on management than cattle. And buffalo provide so much more than meat to Native people. They provide hides, the heads and even the sharp shin bones used in Sun Dance ceremonies, as well as a cultural link.
Frederick said he has long wanted to start his own bison herd.
“The dream came true,” he said.
Lead photo: Bison once roamed North America, from coast to coast, from Alaska to Mexico. Several groups, including the Nature Conservancy, have been working to re-establish the native grazing animals to lands owned and managed by Native Americans. Photo by Chris Helzer / The Nature Conservancy