Recreating a Native Home Where the Buffalo Roam

Recreating a Native Home
Where the Buffalo Roam

Rolling hills covered with native prairie grasses for as far as the eye can see is the scenic and tranquil setting on the Rosebud Reservation in south central South Dakota. It was once home to large native buffalo herds, and today, members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe are implementing the Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range & Wildlife Sanctuary to honor that past heritage and help be stewards for the future.

“It’s really empowering to have our relatives back on the homeland,” says TJ Heinert, of the return of the buffalo. TJ, who lives near Mission, is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate and assistant manager for the herd.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has secured nearly 28,000 acres of grassland for the Wolakota Buffalo Range. The first buffalo were brought back to the land in fall 2020. Today about 800 head roam the prairie as part of the Wolakota project.

The Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range is a great example of the heritage, culture, experience, and achievements of Indigenous peoples both historically and in American life today. That aligns with the purpose of National Native American Heritage Month, which is celebrated each year in November under Congressional authority and presidential proclamation.

Regenerating land and people

TJ explains that the buffalo are providing an opportunity to bring regeneration to both the Rosebud Sioux land and people. Specifically, the Wolak̇ota Regenerative Buffalo Range has a vision to provide cultural and educational opportunities, initiate ecological regeneration, combat climate change, strengthen food sovereignty, and create economic opportunity.

“The ecosystem is coming back,” TJ says. “Having these buffalo has really improved the land; they are treating it how it should be and giving proper nutrients back.”

TJ has worked with crews to install fencing and watering facilities on the rangelands for the bison, but beyond that, the animals roam free and live off the land. He explains that unlike cattle, buffalo are not domesticated.

“They are really a different animal,” he says. “They are not getting any supplements. They are really hands off, and they are self-sustainable.”

He adds, “They are living like they once used to be. Once they are born on site, that’s their life, they’re on grass; they’re never going to a feedlot or slaughterhouse. The only time we bring them into corrals is to work them to make sure they’re healthy and check for calves. So they are in and out, and then they are back out on the grasslands.”

Culturally, TJ emphasizes that the return of the buffalo is also important for the native people. As an animal recognized by the Sicangu Lakota as a relative, the buffalo plays a healing and restorative role in the Native cultural economy.

TJ notes that having the buffalo back on the reservation provides many opportunities for education, especially among Sicangu Lakota youth.

“We’re showing the virtues of what once was and what was lost over the years and introducing that culture back to our youth,” he says.

This past summer, one group of individuals was able to learn about the buffalo, the grassland ecosystem, and then witness a traditional harvest of the buffalo. More educational programs will continue to be offered for the Sicangu Lakota people.

Golden West helps make efforts like the Wolakota project possible by keeping people connected across the vast prairie of Todd County. Whether it be ranch staff communicating with one another or sharing the Wolakota story, fast, reliable internet service has, and will continue to be, important to this effort.

“We are happy”

Individually, TJ can attest to the benefits the buffalo have brought. He watches the animals and their respect for the land every day. He sees them maneuver across the prairie as they share the land with the deer, elk, antelope and other wildlife.

“The ground is happy, the buffalo are happy, and we are happy,” he says about the efforts overall.

New buffalo calves are being born each summer and additions of more buffalo from herds managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal is to eventually have the Wolakota herd be about 1,500 animals.

Presently, the entity is North America’s largest Native American owned and managed bison herd. The project includes support from the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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