Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Part II. American Serengeti—Let’s take Another Look

Interview with Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, Malta, Montana.

In our BLOG of June 23, 2020, we published “American Serengeti—What is going on in Montana?,” which discusses the enormous wildlife project that is shaking the foundations of community development and progress in Phillips County, Montana, and Malta, its county seat, and nearby communities.

The American Prairie Reserve—APR, or simply the Prairie Reserve–on the upper Missouri River is a plan to develop a huge grazing unit—the largest nature reserve in the continental United States.

American Prairie Reserve buffalo graze along Telegraph Creek on Sun Prairie. Photo by APR, Dennis Lingohr.

On this land APR aims to turn back the clock and restore the wildlife that roamed here two centuries ago, along with its large predators—grizzly bears, packs of wolves, mountain lions—and great herds of wild buffalo.

The idea grew from casual roots when this Montana area was “discovered” in 2000 by a group of environmentalists who proclaimed it critical for preserving grassland biodiversity.

One year later, in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, a member of that group, a biologist named Curt Freese, teamed up with a Montana native named Sean Gerrity and together they formed the American Prairie Reserve (APR).

Gerrity, a Silicon Valley consultant, says the idea was to “move fast and be nimble,” in the manner of high-tech start-ups.

They would remove the thousands of cattle grazing public land, stock it with 10,000 buffalo, tear out divider fences, restore native vegetation, and add missing wildlife in a pristine natural setting. This would be much appreciated by their wealthy donors from all over the world who could visit occasionally, staying in opulent yurts.

In the 19 years since, the Prairie Reserve group has moved ahead, raising $160 million in private donations, nearly all of it from out-of-state high-tech and business entrepreneurs across the U.S. and Europe.

They have acquired 30 properties—cattle ranches—totaling 104,000 acres. To this they added about three times that—more than 300,000 acres—in grazing leases on adjacent federal and state land—as owners are allowed when they purchase land with grazing rights.

Plans are to purchase about 20 more ranches.

In this American Prairie map of the proposed area, blue areas depict lands purchased and leased by the American Prairie Reserve in the last 19 years. The plan is to connect these with Federal lands, including the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge (dark green) and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (light green) and other state and federal and perhaps Indian lands (brown). APR Map.

The properties purchased are all strategically located near two federally protected areas: the 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the 377,000-acre Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, according to National Geographic (Feb.2020, p69-89), which partners with Prairie Reserve in the Last Wild Places initiative. Other Federal and State lands intersect as well. Most of these lands are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the Department of Interior (DOT).

Other environmentalists, such as The Nature Conservancy, have long purchased lands for conservation, but none have done it in the large-scale APR proposes, according to National Geographic. Few have had the ambition as the Prairie Reserve does, of retaining long-term ownership and management authority of that land as well as adjoining publicly-owned lands.

Needless to say, cattle ranchers and many local townspeople—who have been watching the inevitable disintegration of formerly close communities, as one rancher after another sells out to APR, and families and businesses leave—are not pleased with what is happening.

We invited Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, representing the Philllips County Livestock Association, to give us the cattle ranchers side of this Montana controversy.

Below is our interview with Marko Manoukian.

Marko Manoukian, Phillips County Extension Agent, of Malta, Montana, surveys the irrigation system in his county. He represents the Philllips County Livestock Association in presenting the cattle ranchers side of Montana controversy over APR. Photo submitted by M Manoukian.

Francie Berg: What is the American Prairie Reserve (APR) doing that upsets the local ranchers so much?

Marko Manoukian: Principally, they are crowding out the ability of ranchers to compete economically for agricultural land—in this case grazing land.

Because APR pays a premium for the property—more than a neighboring rancher could pay off with cows—this doesn’t allow for young people to come back and be engaged in livestock production.

Francie: Do you disagree with APR’s statement that they pay the regular, going price for land?

Marko: Correct, principally because, they are a 501C3 charitable organization so they get tax-free dollars to compete.

The tax code under charity is reserved for those things related to health or education. APR getting that designation is far outside the scope of the tax code.

But they got it somehow.

Francie: So they have already got from the BLM what they want?

Marko: Well, competition for the land is one issue.

Malta is losing its population of 2,000, say ranchers. They worry that each ranch APR acquires is one lost to the community, draining taxes from the county treasury, children from schools, and business from stores. Photo by maltachamber.com.

Another issue is that they’ve made application to BLM for year-around grazing and to alter the fence perimeter.

Neighboring ranchers or permitees are required to make application through the BLM and have been denied those things.

Francie: Denied what?

Marko: Year-around grazing and fence altercation. There’s supposed to be an environment assessment made by the BLM to be approved before any fences are changed.

None of that has happened—and I suppose in Phillips County alone they’ve probably altered 100 miles of BLM perimeter fence already.

Some neighboring operators are angry because now the fences are electric and that’s a hazard for them and their cattle.

Francie: Why is that a hazard?

Marko: Well as a neighboring rancher, yes it is. Because you’re not in charge of energizing the fence. They are.

So if your cow somehow got across the fence you might not know how to turn the fence off to get to the other side.

This would be the same for recreation, crawling around hunting—hunters may not know how to turn the fence off or even know that it is electric before they get zapped.

Francie:  You’re saying electric fences are a problem for recreation?

Marko: Yes. Electric fences are a limitation to recreation.

Francie: The BLM land is supposed to be open for recreation, isn’t it?

Hand Lettered sign objects to federal decisions overriding local input. Photo by Shawn Regan.

Marko: Correct. That’s not multiple use. We’ve argued that electric fence is not multiple use.

Francie: So you think the BLM is treating the cattle ranchers unfairly.

Marko: Yes, they are.

Francie:  And what course do the ranchers have?

Marko: Two actions that ranchers have taken.

BLM has said we’re going to change the allotment from cattle to bison. And the ranchers have objected to that. One is to object to change grazing from cattle to bison.

Francie: Can they just change it without consulting anyone?

Marko: True. Well they haven’t changed it yet. But early on the neighboring permitees could see that there is favoritism going on. So they’ve challenged everything that BLM has done.

Francie: You’ve done this in a legal way?

Marko: Yep. We’ve hired an attorney to review and represent us in that process.

I think there are 5 allotments now. Originally it was 18 allotments that they wanted to change to year-around grazing and bison grazing only. But now they have requested permits for just 5 allotments.

Francie: The ranchers are challenging this?

Marko: Yep.

Francie: What will happen next?

Marko: Eventually BLM will provide a document suggesting the best management alternatives they see under that request. So we’re just waiting for that environmental assessment document to come forward. Or they can deny the request all together.

Francie: So they can deny APR s request—or your request?

Marko: Yes, either of them.

So then the other action the livestock operators have taken. The citizens of the county have passed an ordinance that bison must be handled like livestock.

The citizens have said all bison have to be managed like cattle. This means owners have to do disease testing and some identification of their animals.

Signs in Malta oppose bison ranging free. “What APR really wants is a takeover of Federal land and control of how it’s managed,” says Deanna Robbins, a rancher in Roy.

But APR has asked for a variance from that ordinance So we’re working through that process.

Francie: I also noticed—BLM is saying that the bison are fine with just 1 single fence around the outside. In our area BLM is telling the ranchers they have to build inner dividing fences and rotate their cattle quite frequently.

Marko: Yes, all BLM pemitees are required to rotate their animals on BLM Land.

It’s the biggest change that BLM has taken on over the course of its existence. And now they want to go back to one giant pasture and keep the same animals in there all year around.

Francie: I read that the APR goal is to get 10,000 bison in their one large, single pasture. Do you think 10,000 would be fully stocked for that amount of land?

Marko: Yes, that’s more than a full load.

Francie: So won’t they graze it down even faster if they do it without rotation?

Marko: Yes, that’s our claim.

Francie: Montana is a big producer of cattle, right? So if this happens to that big chunk of grazing land, it will cut Montana’s beef production. Any speculation on this?

Marko: Oh, Yes. APR is planning on taking productive land and turning it into no production. That hurts our economy. Both regional and local economy are impacted. Also they are impacted because the APR operations aren’t buying fuel, fertilizer, net wrap and tires.

Francie: And it seems kind of deceptive that these people are outsiders from Silicon Valley, but making a case that they are Montanans, even placing their so-called national headquarters in Bozeman.

Marko: That’s their story, yes. Well some of them are, I guess.

Francie: What about the luxury yurts they are advertising for their donors? Are they available for use by everyone?

Marko: Well, it does appear that the preserve is used mostly by the upper class. Some of their packages are priced at $2,500 occupancy per person—that doesn’t include their traveling to get here.

Yurts on the plains may look as simple as granaries. But according to photos in Prairie Reserve’s advertising material the luxury is all inside. They are draped in opulent hangings and furnished with exotic items for lavish living in the manner of Arab tents awaiting Lawrence of Arabia. David Grubbs, Billings Gazette.

Francie: What about local people? Do they have a lower price for ordinary people to stay overnight?

Marko: I don’t know if they advertise a local or lower price.

Francie: They say they don’t charge people to come onto their lands. Is it free to come into their refuges?

Marko: They don’t have any legal authority to regulate how people enter the BLM land, which is the majority of their holdings. I’m suspicious that on their deeded land—some people may be charged and some not.

Francie: Right now do they only run bison on their purchased land, not BLM lands?

Marko: I believe they do have 1 BLM permit licensed for bison, but no other bison as yet on BLM land.

Francie: Sounds as if they are trying to totally change the livestock from cattle to bison. I also heard a complaint that this will give APR long-term power about how the bison pastures are handled.

Marko: I don’t know that they’re going to have a lot of repeat customers to come out to the prairie. We haven’t had rain on the prairie for most of the summer. So the grasshoppers are horrible.

I know there are going to be ranchers who have to adjust the livestock they have on BLM land.

Francie: So how are they going to adjust the bison numbers in a dry year if they already have too many head? If there are too many grasshoppers and too little moisture—have they planned for that?

Marko: No they don’t plan for those kinds of environmental impacts.

Like in 2010 and 2011 we had 100 inches of snow. APR didn’t have any hay. The buffalo broke out. Left their property, traveled a long ways, and had to be brought back by helicopter.

Francie: Why did they break out?

Marko: The buffalo broke out because they were hungry! 

Hopefully long-term BLM will stick to the rules.

Francie: Do you have a good case?

Marko: I think we do. And hopefully the rules of management of our public land will hold. Congress hasn’t overturned the Taylor Grazing Act. So if they stick to the rules, they’ll have to make application and not be allowed to run free-range.

Francie: So they won’t be able to just run freely under 1 big fence. You’re saying that most of the cattle ranchers agree on this?

Marko: Yes—they would be against changing the rules.

Francie: Doesn’t APR plan to link all this land with just 1 perimeter fence around it?

Marko: That’s their theory. But they’re pretty well spread across our county and across the river and they’re not necessarily connected.

DOI Presents 10-year Plan for Bison

Geese fly over a semi truck emblazoned with a banner promoting private land ownership in Lewistown on Thursday, Jan. 24. Across the street the American Prairie Reserve was holding a public conference for agricultural producers on Living with Wildlife. Photo Bret French, Billings Gazette.

Francie: It’s interesting, the “Save the Cowboy” signs we see around your county and other counties close by. I think their point is quite clear—a lot of local people don’t like what they are seeing.

However, I see that the Department of the Interior (DOI) of which BLM and the government grazing lands are a part, has a new 10-year plan concerning Bison.

That powerful department—DOI which governs one eighth of the land mass of the United States—recently announced their commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on “appropriate large landscapes.” 

Their 10-year plan, called the Bison Conservation Initiative, is a new cooperative program that will coordinate conservation strategies and approaches for the wild American Bison over the next 10 years. They mention working with tribal herds in North and South Dakota.

What do you think of that, Marko?

Marko: In Interior’s press release I don’t see any mention of tribes in Montana, so hard to say what impact this will have in other states.

With the smallest cow herds in the US at least since 1950 one would wonder why the US government would help tribes remove more cattle. But if the tribes want to do that just on tribal lands that would be ok, of course.

Francie: Right, both the projects mentioned in the press release are quite limited, and have to do with increasing tribal buffalo herds and genetics of the Theodore Roosevelt Park herd.

On the other hand—when we look at DOI’s 10-year goals organized around five central themes,

it sounds as if they might have wider plans than that.

Here are DOI’s announced 10-year goals:

1.Wild, Healthy Bison Herds: A commitment to conserve bison as healthy wildlife

2.Genetic Conservation: A commitment to an interagency, science-based approach to support genetic diversity across DOI bison conservation herds

3.Shared Stewardship: A commitment to shared stewardship of wild bison in cooperation with states, tribes and other stakeholders

4.Ecological Restoration: A commitment to establish and maintain large, wide-ranging bison herds on appropriate large landscapes where their role as ecosystem engineers shape healthy and diverse ecological communities

5.Cultural Restoration: A commitment to restore cultural connections to honor and promote the unique status of bison as an American icon for all people (Department of Interior Press Release 5/7/2020)

Ecological Restoration and establishing and maintaining large, wide-ranging bison herds” sounds eerily like what the Prairie Reserve is trying to do.

Yet if that commitment is to be tempered by the “Shared Stewardship,” pledge to cooperate with “states, tribes and other stakeholders,” surely DOI will not participate in deliberate breaking up of close communities against the desires of local residents.

When there is a strong cultural backlash from 100-year residents—as there is from Malta and the Phillips County cattle ranchers—certainly that needs to be considered.

DOI and BLM when acting locally will surely recognize heavy-handedness when they participate in it.

If they think they can override local protests, the “Save the Cowboy” signs make the issues clear. Montana ranchers are making them plain with both lawyers and hand-made signs.

A pair of horses on Lewistown’s Main Street helped spread a message of support for cowboys and opposition to the American Prairie Reserve during the Living With Wildlife Conference last winter, for which the APR was a co-sponsor. Photo by Danica Rutten.

It seems that DOI and BLM need to back off and recognize that the arrogance of these environmental outsiders does not sit well with Montanans.

Their heavy-handedness can in no way be called “Shared Stewardship” with “states and other stakeholders” even when they can “move fast and be nimble,” in the words of Sean Gerrity.

Indeed, maybe 10,000 sometimes-hungry buffalo under one single electric-fenced pasture is not such a lofty goal, after all.

Right DOI? And if you’ve been thinking so, please tell us why.

What gives them—and you—the right to destroy living communities?

Maybe it only proves the arrogance and pig-headedness of those who have “discovered” this little gem of 100 years of shared conservation efforts at such a late date?

For more on how DOI is working “to improve the conservation and management of bison,” contact Interior_Press@ios.doi.gov)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Thousands on Hand for Annual Buffalo Roundup Sep 24-26

Thousands on Hand for Annual Buffalo Roundup Sep 24-26

On the 55th Annual Buffalo Roundup over 20,512 visitors watched this year while 1,400 head of buffalo headed toward the corrals at Custer State Park. Photo courtesy of Custer State Park.

Thousands on Hand for Annual Buffalo Roundup Sep 24-26

CUSTER, S.D. – Over 20,512 visitors attended the 55th Annual Buffalo Roundup at Custer State Park on Friday morning, Sept. 25, 2020, watching as 60 horseback riders wrangled the herd of 1,400 bison into the corrals for their annual health check.

“It was another perfect Buffalo Roundup weekend in Custer State Park,” said park superintendent Matt Snyder.

“We had three great days of weather, a hot air balloon night glow for the first time ever at the Arts Festival, and we were able to livestream the Roundup to over 100,000 people who could not be here in person to view it.

“All of our bison and riders made it to the corrals safely, so in our eyes the event was a huge success.”

Not only is the roundup a spectacular sight to see, it is also a critical management tool in maintaining a strong and healthy herd.

Visitors dig in at Roundup in two viewing areas starting at 6 am on this hill and the opposite slope, while buffalo are brought around and up the creek. Guests must stay in the viewing areas until the herd is safely in, around noon. Breakfast is available in both viewing areas and a buffalo picnic lunch is sold at the corrals once the buffalo are rounded up. Photo FM Berg.

Custer State Park also hosted its three-day arts festival in conjunction with the Buffalo Roundup. Crowds assembled throughout the celebration to enjoy a variety of entertainment under the big top, educational programs and vendors from all over the country.

Looking two years ahead, Buffalo Roundups will be held on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, and Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

 Custer State Park’s Annual Bison Sale Nov 7

Approximately 400 bison that were sorted at the September Roundup will be sold at the park’s annual auction on Saturday Nov. 7 at 10:00 am Mountain Time, according to Kobee Stalder, Visitor Services Program Manager.

Buyers and spectators from around the United States come to watch and participate in the annual auction. Buffalo are generally purchased to supplement an existing herd, to start a new herd, or to eat. 

The auction will be at the Custer State Park Visitor Center just off Highway 16A, in-person and on the internet. The link will be set up and for the online portion visitors can go to www.custerstatepark.com for more information, or contact the park at 605.255.4515 or email CusterStatePark@state.sd.us.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Hornaday’s taxidermy project of six buffalo

Hornaday’s taxidermy project of six buffalo

William Hornaday’s famous six-buffalo masterpiece in huge glass case set a new standard for Smithsonian Museum taxidermy in 1888. During their 70 years in Washington, Hornaday’s big bull that he’d shot himself, became the model for several national symbols. Coins and paper currency, the Great Seal of the Department of the Interior, postage stamps and the National Park Service badge all bear the likeness of his big bull in the Hornaday Collection. Photo from The Extermination of the American Bison.

Returning to Washington, after their great success in buffalo hunting, William Hornaday and his assistants set to work.

Hornaday’s vision developed before he even left Montana. This would be a grouping of bulls, cows and calves. He took time to collect some native soil, a few plants and sagebrush.

He selected six prime specimens—his masterpiece stub-horn bull, cows, calves, a young bull.

After a full year they unveiled their masterpiece. There, in a huge glass case, visitors to the Smithsonian Museum viewed an enchanting scene–six buffalo in an authentic Montana setting.

The Washington Star described the exhibit on March 10, 1888:

“A little bit of Montana—a small square patch from the wildest part of the wild West—has been transferred to the National Museum. . . The hummocky prairie, the buffalo-grass, the sagebrush, and the buffalo.

“It is as though a little group of buffalo that have come to drink at a pool had been suddenly struck motionless by some magic spell, each in a natural attitude, and then the section of prairie, pool, buffalo, and all had been carefully cut out and brought to the National Museum.

A triumph of the taxidermist’s art.”

It was a sight Hornaday fully expected no one would ever see again in life.

Secretly he hid a message voicing his despair for the species in a small sealed metal box in the Montana earth of the Smithsonian display.

Discovered nearly three-quarters of a century later when the exhibit was moved to Montana, curators read Hornaday’s heartfelt plea:

It read, “My Illustrious Successor, Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. . .

“When I am dust and ashes I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction.  —W.T. Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist, March 7, 1888.”

Hornaday’s famous six-buffalo masterpiece in its huge glass case set a new standard for Smithsonian Museum taxidermy in 1888.

During their 70 years of prominent display in Washington, Hornaday’s big bull, that he shot himself, was the model for several national symbols and government issues.

Coins and paper currency, the Great Seal of the Department of the Interior, postage stamps and the National Park Service badge all bear the likeness of the big bull in the Hornaday Collection.

In 1955 the group was dismantled. shipped to Montana, separated, and placed in storage.

Seventy years later, during the 1950s the pieces were shipped to Montana and separated, when Hornaday’s plea was found hid in a metal box in the soil. Refurbished in the 1990s, all six bison came together again and now stand on a pedestal in the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton. A shrine to the buffalo’s loss and rebirth and the group’s dispersion and reunion. Photo by Montana Historical Society.

After years of neglect the mounts were completely restored and returned to public display in 1996.

Refurbished, all six finally came together again and are exhibited in their original poses and positions just as they appeared in the Smithsonian.

They now stand on a pedestal in the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton. A shrine to the buffalo’s loss and rebirth and the group’s dispersion and reunion.

But with his masterpiece in the Smithsonian Hornaday was not finished.

During that same year in 1887, he took on the task of writing what he expected might be the last word on the iconic buffalo—a report of its history and how the species came to be exterminated—which was published in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year of 1887.

Convinced this might be the final report on the buffalo, he wanted to get it right.

With characteristic thoroughness Hornaday interviewed and contacted every possible source with buffalo know-how—from riverboat captains, to military officers on far-flung army bases, fur traders and railroaders, to explorers, ranchers and cowboys.

His report was over 200 pages long. Two years later in 1889 it was published as a book “The Extermination of the American Bison: With a Sketch of its Discovery and Life History,” by the Government Printing Office.

Then Hornaday discovered a future in living buffalo—and never looked back.

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Part III. Viewing Sites 9 and 10—Fort Yates and Jamestown

Sitting Bull Visitor’ Center near Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

If you’re a traveler coming into the Hettinger-Lemmon area from the east or west, you will likely plan to complete your tour by visiting Sites 9 and 10 either before or after the main section of your tour.

Otherwise, separate trips might take you through Fort Yates and Jamestown—which are somewhat to the northeast.

Tribal herds can be viewed at Ft. Yates, and other reservations. The “largest buffalo,” and a National Buffalo Museum that includes a full-body mount of the famed White Cloud reside in Jamestown.

If time allows, a stop in Bismarck at the North Dakota Heritage Center—midway between the two final sites—adds one more important theme to the buffalo story. Here you’ll find exhibits of the pre-historic bones of ancient buffalo found in the state.

Outdoor Events on Capital Grounds in Bismarck feature arts, crafts, food vendors and entertainment. Courtesy ND Tourism.

Part I. Sites 1-4 of this Tour, published in our Sept. 8, 2020 Blog, told of the great traditional hunts from 1880 to 1883. These last great buffalo hunts—the Hiddenwood Hunt, the winter hunt in the Slim Buttes and the valley of the last stand, which was the final harvest of the last 1,200 wild buffalo by Sitting Bull and his band on October 12 and 13, 1883.

This region, bordered by the North Dakota towns of Hettinger, Reeder and Scranton, and the South Dakota towns of Lemmon, Bison and Buffalo, is where Native people conducted the last traditional hunts of the majestic wild buffalo that once roamed here in huge herds on what was then the Great Sioux Reservation.

Part II. Sites 5-8, Sept. 22, 2020. Then, just before the last wild herds disappeared forever, the Duprees—a Native American family— returned to the hunt site (Site 5) to save 5 orphaned buffalo calves—and became internationally famous for growing their own buffalo herd at a critical time.

Included on this part of the tour are some ancient locations—such as the authentic buffalo jump at Shadehill SD, used for thousands of years before horses arrived on the Plains—and Native American traditions that incorporated buffalo into their culture.

This is the region where all parts of the Buffalo story come together.

There’s no other place like it for buffalo history and traditions—from ancient times until now, when nearly every tribe in the Plains owns their own buffalo herd and are delighted to share it with you.

So if you’re a traveler smitten by the iconic American buffalo, you can plan your next trip around buffalo sites you find here and on our website.

We outline world class trips to visit these buffalo-related sites, both historic and modern day.

North Dakota Tourism has added our Buffalo Trails Tour to its Best Places and promotes it with international tours. South Dakota Travel provides links as well. (This information is available in our Self-Tour Guide book “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” available at local businesses and hettingernd.com/buffalotrails.)

Site 9. Tribal Herds—Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Buffalo in Standing Rock’s North Pasture graze in green grass by Highway 1806 (ND 24), just south of the Prairie Knights Casino. FM Berg.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which spans the North and South Dakota border, headquartered in Fort Yates, N.D., has a long history of raising buffalo. Initially they were private herds, such as those owned by the Dupree family from the early 1880s.

The first permanent tribally-owned herd arrived in 1955—one bull and four cows—a gift from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, according to Mike Faith, Standing Rock Tribal Chairman, who was the Tribal buffalo manager for nearly 20 years.

Other buffalo came as donations from Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks in South Dakota, or were purchased with tribal funds and grants through the years. To improve genetic diversity, the tribe bought bulls from the Custer State Park buffalo sale.

Standing Rock now runs 400 to 500 buffalo in two herds—about the right size for the grazing land available. It’s important not to overgraze in the drought-prone plains, explains Faith.

To view one or both tribal herds owned by Standing Rock Sioux Tribe inquire at the tourism office in Fort Yates—it’s a beautiful building halfway up the hillside to the left as you approach the town of Ft. Yates.

Gift shop in Sitting Bull Visitor’s Center offers beaded moccasins, jewlery and other handmade crafts. Photo by LaDonna Allard.

You may need special permission and probably a guide to take you through the necessary gates and fences if you visit the south herd in the picturesque Porcupine Breaks or Hills. There the scenery is amazingly rugged and the roads primitive.

Buffalo graze through prairie dog town in the Porcupine Breaks pasture. Courtesy Standing Rock.

Or you may drive directly to the north pasture, which borders Hwy 1806 (ND 24) on the road to Mandan, just south of the Prairie Knights Casino (also owned by the SRS Tribe), and view the north buffalo herd through the fence.

Here the terrain is more rolling, carpeted thickly with green grass, less dramatic than the rugged Porcupine Breaks pasture up on the flat, but it also runs through some badlands country as it drops down toward the Missouri River on the east side.

As happens, off and on through an ordinary week, a knot of people gathers by the highway, watching buffalo in the north pasture through the double-high woven wire fence.

Smiling, murmuring softly—they might be a school tour from nearby Bullhead, Eagle Butte or Wakpala. Or tourists from Minnesota or Norway spilling from a charter bus.

Or perhaps a visiting group of Native people in traditional dress are performing a buffalo ceremonial. They’ve parked briefly along the highway or on the side road along the south edge of the pasture going east.

“We’d like a highway drive-off, so people can stop more easily,” notes my guide, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Historian and Director of Tourism for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

After spending as much time as you like contemplating live buffalo, continue driving north to Interstate-94 at Mandan, where you turn east to Jamestown to view more one-of-a-kind buffalo-related sites.

InterTribal Council efforts—A homecoming

ITBC logo

Throughout Indian country buffalo have staged a homecoming.

Assisting and inspiring this come-back has been the mission of the InterTribal Buffalo Council for two and a half decades.

In February 1991, a meeting in the Black Hills of South Dakota, hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, brought together 19 tribes to talk about the challenges they face with their own herds and how they can help other tribes restore buffalo to Indian lands.

Coming from all four directions, they discussed their tribes’ desire to obtain or expand buffalo herds and grow them into successful, self-sufficient programs.

Above and beyond the practical economics of it, they wanted to raise buffalo in a way that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices.

Buffalo represent the Native spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

Together these Native leaders launched the InterTribal Buffalo Council, believing that reintroduction of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.

In June of that same year Congress voted to provide funding for tribal programs and to donate surplus buffalo from national parks and public refuges to interested tribes.

The InterTribal Council agreed to supervise grants and distribution of the animals.

Buffalo began coming home to reservations in earnest.

Today 69 Indian tribes belong to the InterTribal Council, owning a total of more than 20,000 buffalo now living in tribal herds across the United States.

Many tribes run large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes. Traditionally they believe restoration of buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo. Photo by InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Many are plains tribes with a long history of depending on buffalo for food, shelter and clothing. Others have no known history of hunting buffalo, but want the cultural experience for their people.

Mike Faith, as vice-chairman of the InterTribal Council, has worked with many of these tribes. He says some own large buffalo herds for commercial as well as cultural purposes.

 Others set goals for a small herd mostly for cultural and educational purposes. They might slaughter only one or two buffalo a year for special celebrations and ceremonial use.

 It depends on land available, land uses on the reservation, tribal population and historic dependence on buffalo.

InterTribal Council technicians explain working buffalo in the chutes at a workshop. Photo by ITBC.

 

 

 

 

 

“Quality over quantity is what counts,” explains Faith. “Whether they want a small herd—20 or 30, or a larger commercial herd—we can give help and technical assistance.”

No matter the numbers, Faith suggests it is important that new tribes take their buffalo venture seriously, hiring a competent manager.

 The InterTribal Council offers training and educational programs—such as in low stress buffalo handling—and coordinates transfer of buffalo.

 If desired, experienced leaders are available to help the new buffalo owners work out management and marketing plans that fit with their particular concerns and goals.

 Sometimes the experienced buffalo handlers recommend fewer animal numbers to better accommodate the land available. A buffalo herd needs plenty of space, grass and water.

Details like building high, strong fences before the buffalo arrive are essential—and costly. There may be grants available to help, they suggest. They also work with federal agencies to help bring fractured lands together for pastures.

“Having the buffalo back helps rejuvenate the culture,” says Jim Stone, Executive Secretary of the InterTribal Buffalo Council based in Rapid City and a Yankton Lakota, “In my tribe, like others, the buffalo was honored through ceremony and songs. There were buffalo hunts and prayers to give thanks to the buffalo.”

The Council has adopted a lofty mission: “Restoring buffalo to Indian Country, to preserve our historical, cultural and traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.”

Daily the leaders are reminded that buffalo represent the spirit of Native people and how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.

They believe that to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. And returning the buffalo to tribal lands will “help heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of the Indian people.”

“We have many cultural connections to the buffalo,” points out Alvah Quinn, a South Dakota Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Director, who also has managed the local Extension Program.

“I grew up hearing about the buffalo, but we didn’t have any around on the reservation.” His tribe’s last recorded buffalo hunt was in 1879.

Quinn says he will always remember the rainy night in September 1992 when he helped bring the first 40 buffalo to his home reservation.

 “I was really surprised that night. There were 60 tribal members waiting in the cold and rain to welcome the buffalo back home. After a 112-year absence!”

 They now own 350 buffalo—one of many success stories.

 In Alaska, Randy Mayo, first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, believes being around buffalo can help people work through personal problems.

 He acknowledges that when the village voted to move forward with raising buffalo, he didn’t know much about the animal that had provided food, clothing and shelter to his ancestors.

He learned a lot.

“Every time I come here it lifts me up,” said Mayo. “Just observing them, you never get tired of it.”

Herdsmen play a special role. Caring for buffalo enhances feelings of self-worth and pride in the men and women who work with them, reports Art Schmidt, South Dakota’s Flandreau Santee Sioux buffalo herd manager.

He sees an amazing change in the attitudes of people he hires.

A fenced viewing stand overlooking the Oneida Tribal herd provides a safe place for visiting groups. Courtesy Oneida Tribe.

“Knowing they are taking care of that beautiful magnificent creature—it becomes part of who they are and gives them a sense of pride in their culture,” Schmidt says. “They’re not just going out and doing their job and collecting a paycheck and going home.” 

The Standing Rock tribe harvests 15 to 25 young bulls a year for its own use. Processed in Mobridge under federal inspection, the meat is donated to food distribution programs and provides buffalo roasts and stew meat for various celebrations.

Faith hopes to get buffalo meat into their school system of 800 students.

In many tribes, anyone putting on a community feed can request buffalo meat. It is served at graduations, funerals, naming ceremonies and community celebrations, and has become an honored part of the healthy foods in diabetes programs.

Cherishing Buffalo Meat

The opportunity to eat buffalo meat is cherished by Native Americans.

“Eat the meat of the buffalo,” say Native elders.  “It’s healing. It keeps our people strong. It fills the soul as well as the body.

Considered delicious and healthy, hearty and sweet, tasty and tender, buffalo beef is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein, highly absorbable iron and zinc, plus other minerals and vitamins.

When grass fed, it has even less fat and is thus more nutrient-dense.

Butchering and caring for the meat is regarded as an integral part of the circle of life, and as an important skill to teach children.

“Every part has a meaning. We use them all,” Allard explains.

Some, such as the Fort Peck tribes in northeastern Montana, where I visited, have built their own butchering facility, out near the corrals, for tribal members who want to purchase and slaughter their own buffalo from the business herd of about 200 head.

Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Fish and Game Director, told me, “We have all the equipment and they bring their own wrap. We teach them how to cut up and cook the different parts.”

But first, says Magnan, “We talk to the buffalo. Tell them we need meat to feed our families. Thank them for their willingness to take care of us.”

Some tribes sell federally inspected buffalo meat and some sell buffalo hunts to people from across the United States and other countries.

Learning from the Buffalo

People can learn much from the buffalo, says LaDonna Allard.

“Our tribe is the original ‘Buffalo Nation—Pte Oyate.’ Everything we do is related to the buffalo. In our ceremonies we use all parts of the buffalo. In the powwow we dance like the buffalo. How we raise our children. . .

Allard tells the story of a Native woman who neglected her children. The tribal judge placed them in a foster home and sentenced her to go each day for six months to watch the buffalo herd, writing down what she saw.

In six months she returned to court.

“What did you learn?” asked the judge.

“I learned that buffalo mothers protect and praise, and constantly care for their children. They teach—and discipline them too, but in a good way.”

“Do you think you can do that?”

“Yes. I want my children back. I’ll try to be a better mother—like buffalo mothers.”

The Council leaders recognize that even after more than a century of recovery, many Native Americans still feel an acute sense of loss over the destruction of the wild buffalo herds and all that represents in their lives.

The InterTribal Buffalo Council is committed to establishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a way that promotes spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development. They suggest that for people who may be hurting, contemplating their own tribal buffalo can help them heal and bring a sense of wholeness and peace.

Teaching young people about traditional relationships and spiritual connections to the buffalo is important to Lisa Colome, a grasslands expert with the InterTribal Council.

“Native kids have a natural connection to the buffalo,” she tells me, her dark eyes warming. “They’re just naturally born with this awe. They are never disrespectful and show genuine caring. This is what tribes are seeking.”

She enjoys bringing children to see the buffalo.

“Once I brought a group of sixth graders. They watched silently as the buffalo ran over the hill out of sight. I said, ‘Just wait, I think they’ll come back if we’re quiet.’

“We peeked over the hill. The buffalo circled back and came within 25 feet. The kids had never been that close before.”

It’s easy to see that Colome is excited about her work, whether her day focuses on herd and forage health, or cultural and spiritual ties.

Not always do tribal herds bring financial benefits, she knows—often quite the opposite. But always she sees cultural value.

“I love being a part of developing tactics, plans and solutions that ensure buffalo are here for generations to come,” she says.

“Return of the buffalo awakens the Native spirit—it gives us hope of better lives.”

Site 10. National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown

Jamestown ND—with its “World’s Largest Buffalo” overlooking the town and the buffalo pasture—may have been an obvious choice for locating the National Buffalo Museum. ND Tourism. 

 In the early 1990s the National Buffalo Association and the American Bison Association merged into the National Bison Association. They pooled their collections of buffalo-related artifacts, artwork, and historical memorabilia and looked for a historically significant place to display them.

Jamestown, ND, was perhaps an obvious choice.

Already it was home to the World’s Largest Buffalo, Dakota Thunder, built in 1959 on a hill above the town of Jamestown, right next to the Interstate—I-94. A frontier town had sprung up at its base, and a pasture between was planned for a buffalo herd.

“Largest Buffalo” is a popular photo op for families. ND Tourism.

Further, the location had an ancient history of buffalo migrations along the south-flowing James River. A place where Native hunters lay in wait for easy hunting in fall and spring.

The new museum opened in June 1993, with the North Dakota Buffalo Foundation dedicated to its management and financial stability.

The museum is now home to numerous art works, artifacts, and related Native American items. Visitors see items such as a 10,000 year old bison skull, a complete skeleton of bison antiqus (ancestor to the modern bison), artworks and artifacts relevant to the history of the American bison.

Featured in one room is the full body mount of White Cloud, Jamestown’s beloved albino bison, honored in a glass case and brushed to an elegant sheen. For 20 years she reigned as a prize of the local buffalo herd.

The Museum also hosts the Buffalo Hall of Fame, where visitors learn about the people who have had significant impacts on conservation and restoration of the US National Mammal. And of course an extensive gift shop.

Interactive exhibits are attractions of the National Buffalo Museum, as well as extensive buffalo art, gifts and buffalo cookies. ND Tourism.

Summer hours: Memorial Day to Labor Day, 8 am–8 pm daily. Winter hours: Mon-Sat. 10 am-5 pm. Admission $8-$6. (701-252-8648; 1-800-807-1511) www.buffalomuseum.com

World’s Largest Buffalo

Located at the end of Louis L’Amour Lane, stands the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument, rising tall on the hill in Jamestown, ND.

Buffalo pasture extends into green draws between the big buffalo and I-94. ND Tourism.

Drive through the gate at Frontier Village—it’s open with museum hours.

You will see the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument towering ahead. It stands 26 feet tall, weighs 60-ton—a fun photo op for your family.

A popular roadside attraction for over 50 years, the huge sculpture was created by sculptor Elmer Petersen. On the site with the National Buffalo Museum and a live herd of Buffalo, and an extensive Frontier Village.

Legendary White Buffalo: White Cloud Dynasty

Many plains tribes regard a white buffalo as sacred. Since 1996 traditional Native people have journeyed to Jamestown, North Dakota, to honor and see for themselves the dynasty of White Cloud and her offspring.

Dakota Legend, born to a brown mother in 2008, was believed to be grandson of White Cloud (adults in the Jamestown herd were not identifiable by ear tags or tatoos).

For about 20 years—from the time White Cloud joined the buffalo herd from the Michigan, North Dakota ranch where she was born until her death in Nov. 2016—her white hide showed up clearly among the brown buffalo herd.

Because of her rarity and easy visibility at the home of the National Buffalo Museum and the World’s Largest Buffalo, we added this stop to our tour.

When travelling east on I-94, we hope you will stop and see this miracle for yourselves—a heritage that may stem from the famous Big Medicine himself.

If you dont see the buffalo herd or they are partially hidden from view, drive around the pasture or inquire at the Museum. You may be able to watch them from the museum’s viewing deck with the binoculars provided.

Or come to view them at different times of the day—buffalo like to keep moving.

Once in a great while, rare as it is, a ghostly little newcomer is born into a buffalo herd. A form of albinism, this can occur in any living thing, animal or plant.

From ancient times Native Americans have honored white buffalo and white robes as sacred and carried out special ceremonies to celebrate them.

 

Many Native people today continue these traditions.

In modern times, Jamestown, North Dakota, has been one of the easiest places to see authentic rare white buffalo.

In a narrow hilly pasture along the Interstate, tourists have spotted two and, at one time, even three white animals of purest beautygrazing there in a herd of about 30 brown buffalo.

These were White Cloud, Dakota Miracle and Dakota Legend.

White Cloud, who was born in 1996 and died of old age in 2016, was a true certified albino with pink eyes and skin and not quite black horns. She is mounted and on display at the National Buffalo Museum where she lived most of her 20 years.

This dynasty of white buffalo began when White Cloud was born on a private North Dakota buffalo ranch not far away. The owners offered to share their joy and excitement with admirers through a special lease agreement, but preferred to remain anonymous.

Indian elders came with their drums and sage to welcome her. It was a fitting location for White Cloud and her white offspring.

Years ago Jamestown leaders erected the Worlds Largest Buffalo,a huge cement buffalo on the hill above town. Twenty-six feet high, it honors the great herds that once grazed these rich grasslands and followed a major migration route north and south along the James River valley—a route known for centuries to Native hunters.

Eventually, a historic Frontier Town sprang up beside the big monument, a buffalo herd found pasture, and the National Bison Association decided to locate its National Buffalo Museum there.

Depending on the season and pasture rotations, visitors were able to view one or more white buffalo at this site.

After first giving birth to three brown calves, in 2007 White Cloud produced Dakota Miracle, a white male. Then in 2008, Dakota Legend was born to a brown mother, believed to one of White Cloud’s daughters, in the same Jamestown herd.

Both these two white offspring had blue or brown eyes and dark horns and hooves.

Dakota Miracle grew to adulthood and outlived his mother by a few years, but unfortunately had some health issues. One evening he fell down a steep bank and, apparently unable to rise, was found dead the next morning.

Famous White Buffalo

 Two other well-known white buffalo are Blizzard, a white bull that the Winnipeg Assiniboine Zoo purchased as a yearling in 2005 from a U.S. herd,to honor the buffalo as Manitobas Provincial emblem, according to zoo curator, Dr. Robert E. Wrigley; and Custer, a bull purchased as a seven-year-old from a North Dakota ranch in June 2014 by the Briarwood Safari Ranch, owned by Ron and Deborah Nease, in Bybee, Tennessee.

Famous white buffalo now deceased include what was probably the most famous Buffalo ever: Montanas Big Medicine, born in 1933 who lived for 26 years on the National Bison Range. (See “Legacy of White Buffalo—Big Medicine,” featured in our Aug 25, 2020, Blog.)

Miracle was born in Wisconsin in 1994, and died at age ten. And, all too briefly little Lightning Medicine Cloud, born in 2011 in Texas, lived for only one year. This little white calf was owned by Arby Little Soldier, of the Lakota Sioux tribe from South Dakota.

 Celebrating the Birth of a White Calf

Wherever white buffalo appear, Native people come to visit them, bringing gifts of tobacco ties, colored scarves, dream-catchers and other treasures. Elders perform ceremonials and blessings, waving smudges of sweet grass and singing prayers to drum beats for this highly spiritual animal.

 Many plains tribes celebrate the birth of a white calf as a holy event, and regard the little calf as a sign of peace and harmony—and good times to come.

 They affirm that the white buffalo symbolizes spiritual renewal and the hope of bringing people of all backgrounds closer together. Some see the white buffalo as a manifestation of the White Buffalo Calf Maiden, long revered in Plains tribes as a prophet.

 The welcoming ceremonies were experiences he will never forget, reports Dr. Wrigley, of the Winnipeg Zoo. I felt like I was stepping back into an ancient time to observe the most-sacred and private of ceremonies of a people little known to my culture.

 It has been, he says, A wonderful experience interacting with numerous individuals from First Nations and Métis communities, and they have taught me so much about their traditional relationships with Nature and the spiritual world.

Thank you for Joining us on our Northern Plains Buffalo Tour 

Thank you for joining us on the Dakota Buttes Buffalo Tour of the Northern Great Plains—in the Hettinger/ Lemmon/ Bison / Buffalo area and the Grand River National Grasslands buffalo-related sites. Both historic and contemporary.

We hope you enjoyed it as much as we have in bringing it to you. This is a work in progress, so please share with us your comments and suggestions.

Through the months ahead we will be bringing you more tour-worthy buffalo sites throughout the US and Canada.

In the Dakotas you may also see buffalo at close range, driving among them within their ranges in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, both north and south units, especially near Medora, N.D. (check the prairie dog towns toward evening) and in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of S.D., as well as in tribal herds of every Indian Reservation.

 So if you have any favorites, we’d love to hear about them. Thanks again!

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Hornaday’s Buffalo Hunt for the Smithsonian

Hornaday’s Buffalo Hunt for the Smithsonian

Small bands of buffalo the Smithsonian party found hiding in remote canyons in the Missouri River Breaks were extremely wild. Many carried old bullets of various sizes within their bodies. NPS.

By 1883 the vast herds of buffalo had entirely vanished. Only a small pocket survived here and there in remote areas—and even these, as soon as any hunter learned of them, did not last long.

Clearly the buffalo would soon be extinct as a species.

Alarmed, William Hornaday, as the Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC—America’s greatest museum—took stock of his museum’s buffalo inventory.

 He was shocked to find only a few old, dilapidated buffalo hides, one poorly mounted female, a couple of heads and some bones.

He knew what he had to do: gather some decent buffalo carcasses for his museum so that long after the species became extinct, at least there’d be mounted buffalo to view in the nation’s most important museum.

And since other prominent museums would doubtless want relics of the soon-to-be-extinct mammal—and he could help them—he wanted at least twenty to thirty skins, plus skeletons and heads.

Now, he thought, Americans in later generations would be able to see the great mammal that had once populated America by the millions. It would be too late, of course, and they’d need to travel, but they could visit—albeit only in great museums—the magnificent buffalo that had once grazed the Plains in abundance.

He pleaded with Smithsonian officials to let him go out west where he might find some buffalo and bring back dead carcasses.

Appalled at his report, they agreed to send him at once to find wild buffalo, if any were still living, and bring back specimens.

Research told him there might be some buffalo still in the rugged Missouri River Breaks of Montana.

Hornaday hoped to bring back sixty to eighty specimens if at all possible. At this point, as a taxidermist, dead buffalo were all he wanted, so their skins could be preserved and mounted.

So on May 6, 1886, William Hornaday and two or three assistants set forth by train to Miles City to launch their own last buffalo hunt.

In Miles City they picked up horses, provisions and an Army escort from Fort Keogh and headed north.

Nearly everyone they met declared all the buffalo were gone from central and eastern Montana.

But they kept going, chasing rumors from distant cow hands.

Hornaday’s party finally found its way into the rough badlands near the head of the Little Dry in the Missouri River Breaks.

There they discovered and captured a lone, lost buffalo calf. Ten days later they found a couple of bulls. They shot one and realized he was shedding his winter coat, leaving the hide so tattered and seedy looking it could not be mounted.

They decided to wait till fall for hides in prime winter condition. After Hornaday beseeched local ranchers to spare their intended targets, they took the live calf and returned with it to Washington.

In late September they returned to the same remote badlands, some 135 miles northwest of Miles City.

It was “Wild and rugged butte country, its sides scored by intricate systems of great yawning ravines and hollows, steep-sided and very deep, and badlands of the worst description. Such as persecuted game loves to seek shelter in,” wrote Hornaday.

In two months of hard riding they did find a few small bands of extremely wild stragglers—a lone buffalo bull here, two or three cows with calves there. Seven in one bunch.

By this time they had ten saddle horses and the help of a few soldiers from Ft. Keogh.

Splitting up, they rode twenty-five miles or more each day in different directions. Searching out “the heads of those great ravines around the High Divide . . . [where] the buffalo were in the habit of hiding.”

They eventually killed twenty-two buffalo—bulls, cows and calves. Not the number Hornaday hoped for, but a raging November blizzard with bitter cold cut short their hunt.

Hornaday felt pleased with the big bull he shot himself. “A prize! A truly magnificent specimen. A ‘stub-horn’ bull, about eleven years old. His hair in remarkably fine condition, being long, fine, thick and well colored—sixteen inches in length in his frontlet.”

His bull stood a full six feet tall when they added the four-inch hair on the hump, two inches taller than their next largest bull.

In length, he was nine feet-two-inches, head to tail. In circumference, eight-feet-four around the chest just behind the foreleg.

The bull had been shot several times before. Within the carcass he carried four old bullets of various sizes, as did nearly every bull they killed in those hidden canyons.

All the buffalo were extremely wild.

Regretfully, Hornaday lamented that if the buffalo had been that wild during their heyday, surely more would have survived longer.

However, his hunt was a success. He and his assistants prepared their hides for shipping and headed back to Washington to spend the next year in a great taxidermy project he envisioned for the Smithsonian.

At that point Hornaday could have rested on his laurels, but fortunately for us, he did not.

Instead, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the conservation of buffalo.

No longer satisfied with carcasses, he developed a vision for living buffalo—a way they could be kept safe in parks and public lands across America.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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