100 Bison Released on Tribal Land in South Dakota

It should help with conservation efforts on wild lands.

bison herd in South Dakota
The bison are the first to live in the newly established Wolakota Buffalo Range.

Clay Bolt / WWF

It was a true stampede as 100 plains bison were released this weekend from the National Park Service on the land of the Sicangu Oyate, commonly known as the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The bison (sometimes called American buffalo) were transferred from Badlands National Park and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are the first of as many as 1,500 bison that will live on nearly 28,000 acres of native grassland in the newly established Wolakota Buffalo Range. It’s the launch of what will become North America’s largest Native American-owned and managed bison herd over the next five years. More bison will be delivered from herds managed by the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The project is a partnership between the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with support from the Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprise.

The arrival of the 100 bison on the Wolakota Buffalo Range was backed by the Department of the Interior’s 2020 Bison Conservation Initiative, a 10-year plan focused on expanding bison conservation efforts. Planning and fundraising for the project has been underway for more than a year, Dennis Jorgensen, Bison Coordinator, Northern Great Plains Program at WWF, tells Treehugger.

“Tribal bison restoration efforts, particularly projects of this scale are important for bison and for the Native people of the plains who consider them their relatives. Bison were central to their life ways, their economy, and their spirituality, and have the potential to bring renewed health and prosperity to communities that embrace their return,” Jorgensen says.

“Tribes in the Great Plains steward millions of acres of intact grassland that evolved with bison grazing and can provide a home for them again.”

An estimated 30 to 60 million bison roamed much of North America until the late 1800s, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Bison were critical in the lives of the Plains tribes who used the animals for food and their hides for clothing and shelter. But as settlers moved in, millions of bison were unsustainably slaughtered for food and sport, driving the animals to near extinction.

Today, due to aggressive conservation efforts, the bison's numbers are now stable, and the bison is not endangered but is listed as near threatened, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. About 30,000 bison live in conservation herds throughout North America. The National Bison Association says there are about 400,000 bison now in North America and 90% of them are on private ranches.

bison graze after release
Bison graze after release.

Clay Bolt / WWF

The release of the 100 bison should continue to help with conservation efforts on wild lands, Jorgensen says.

“This will be an important contribution to the conservation of bison as a species because large herds are scarce in North America but are critical for the long-term genetic health of the species,” he says.

“The Wolakota Buffalo Range will also have the potential to serve as a model of a financially, culturally, and ecologically sustainable tribal bison program for other tribes to consider as they engage in their own restoration efforts. We’re excited to see how the bison will impact this place and it’s people after an absence of nearly 140 years.”