Securing a Sustainable Future for Buffalo, People, and Nature

Wolakota Bison     Photo: Clay Bolt, WWF-US

By Wizipan Little Elk

On August 23, 1804, a shot rang out on the wind-swept prairie near what is now called southeastern South Dakota, marking the first buffalo kill of the famous Lewis and Clark reconnaissance expedition. For us Lakota, our neighbors, and our buffalo relatives, it signaled the beginning of what was to become over two centuries of colonial invasion defined by land theft, war, massacres and mass executions of Native peoples, removal of children from families, outlawing of Native religious practices, western extractive agricultural practices and the near extinction of the buffalo. By the century’s end, the buffalo population, once 30-60 million strong, was reduced to only a few hundred left in the wild. 

As the buffalo disappeared from the great plains we were forced onto Indian reservations.  For nearly 150 years Native peoples have labored to bring about the buffalo’s return. Our generation is doing its part by creating what will become North America’s largest Native-owned and managed buffalo herd. We call the project Wolakota, which means living the Lakota way of life. With support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and others, we have secured 28,000-acres of grassland that will eventually serve as a new home for 1,500 buffalo. The first 100 arrived in October 2020, through the support of the U.S. Department of Interior.

Over the next five years, the Wolakota Buffalo Range, located within the Great Sioux Nation on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Southcentral South Dakota, will gradually introduce more buffalo to the range until it reaches its sustainable grazing capacity. Their return heralds a socioeconomic restoration for the Lakota. For thousands of years, the buffalo took care of us, providing food, shelter, clothing, tools, ceremonial items, and teaching us how to be responsible human beings. Their decimation led to the displacement of Indigenous peoples, forced migration to reservations, food insecurity, poverty, degraded soil health, and environmental destruction as a result of U.S. colonial expansion. 

The mass extraction of economic wealth in our area—valued around $2 trillion in 2020 dollars—undermined our sovereignty, for what is sovereignty without self-sufficiency? Even now, nearly half of agricultural operators on Native lands in the Northern Great Plains are non-Indian. The return of buffalo to our lands will bring some of that revenue back to our Native nation, create permanent new jobs, restore a traditional and healthy source of meat, provide educational opportunities for our youth, and open up doors to other environmentally sustainable industries. 

That environmental restoration—the healing of our land—is another essential part of this historic endeavor. Buffalo is a keystone species to the Great Plains’ grassland prairie ecosystem. The unique manner in which buffalo graze fosters more native plant and wildlife diversity. They also engage in a behavior called wallowing, or rolling around in the soil and creating deep depressions in the earth. In the spring, these wallows provide watering holes and habitats for wildlife. In the summer, they support a variety of drought and fire-resistant vegetation. 

We intend to complement the buffalo’s contributions to nature with our own, in the form of sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices, strengthening the ecological health of the range as the herd grows over time. This effort benefits everyone, for grasslands are one of the most powerful carbon sinks on the planet, making their conservation a core component of the global effort to slow climate change. 

In return for all that the buffalo give us, we also have an awesome responsibility to them. Here on the Wolakota Buffalo Range, we will never ship them to feedlots. We will care for them on the prairie, ensure their natural diet and, when it comes time, we will humanely harvest them with the dignity and ceremony they deserve. We make this commitment because buffalo, or Tatanka in the Lakota language, are our relatives. 

Indeed, the origins of our relationship with the buffalo go all the way back to our creation. We believe the Lakota first emerged from beneath the earth in the Black Hills. Some of us took human form and some took the form of buffalo. The buffalo became our caregivers, ever-present and always providing. The buffalo taught our ancestors that we must never take more than we can sustainably use because we are bound to the earth and sky, all living things, and the entire universe. We were taught that when the buffalo are strong, the Lakota will be strong. 

That lesson holds true today, and not just for the Lakota people. Increasingly, folks outside of the Indigenous community are taking note. The “30 by 30” effort to protect 30% of US land and water resources by 2030 is one such example. 

I often tell people “The best way to protect land is to put it in Native lands.” There are Indigenous—and historically marginalized—peoples in every region of the world. We possess millennia of tradition, experience, and knowledge that have made us exceptional stewards of the natural world – people who don’t just celebrate “Earth Day” once a year, but live it every day out of our obligation to future generations Just as the buffalo did for us eons ago, Indigenous peoples can now help the rest of the world achieve a balance between the social good, responsible prosperity, and planetary ecological health.

The path forward is not easy and no one individual, group, organization, or even nation can do it alone. It requires bravery to do what is right, perseverance to do what is difficult, generosity to create an abundant world, compassion for all of creation, truth in thought and discipline, respect for all, and wisdom to make the right decisions. We call this 7Gen thinking (as in seven generations), the idea being that we must do what is in the best interest of our great grandchildren’s great-grandchildren. 

The author and his family watching the first bison arrive       Photo: Stephanie Morgan

All of us, no matter our race, religion, political leaning, or background, can learn these lessons and embrace our responsibility and duty to help revitalize buffalo on the continent. Just as a musket boom 216 years ago trumpeted a period of decline, so too will the thunder of buffalo hooves on Native lands signal the transition to a new, better and more vibrant world.       

To learn more about revitalizing buffalo visit Wolakota Regenerative Buffalo Range

Wizipan Little Elk is a citizen of the Sicangu Lakoa Oyate (known as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe) and CEO of REDCO, an ecosystem of for-profit and nonprofit organizations located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.   

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