Years ago, bison roamed the American West. This fall, up to 200 of the burly beasts are being sent to South Dakota. It’s the first wave of bison transfers—part of a plan to put an American icon back home on the range.
Estimates say 30-60 million bison once roamed North America. Hunting, ranching, and farming drove the animals to near extinction by the late 1800s. At one time, bison numbers fell into the 500s.
Today, about 11,000 bison again roam public lands in 12 states. The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) manages the animals in order to maintain a purebred bison line. But officials are considering how bison affect all of life on the plains.
For the Lakota Indians of South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation, bison have been important for centuries. Bison fertilized and grazed the land. They supplied food, shelter, tools, and clothing for the plains people. The tribe recognizes its longstanding cultural and historic ties to the animals. Transferring the beasts back into their territories helps the tribe to reclaim some of those connections.
The DOI is coordinating the transfers as part of a 10-year plan to restore bison to the plains. The plan includes preserving bison herds and sharing responsibility for the animals with states and tribes.
Relocated bison will roam a 44-square-mile expanse of prairie grassland known as the Wolakota Buffalo Range. They will provide the Lakota with both food and cultural nourishment, says Wizipan Little Elk, CEO of the Rosebud Sioux Economic Development Corporation.
“In our creation story, buffalo and humans emerged from the same place,” Little Elk says. “At one point they took care of us, and now it’s our turn to take care of them.”
Most cultures have creation stories. Such accounts attempt to explain how the world began and how humans came to live there. The Bible gives the Creator’s own account. Little Elk’s explanation does contain some truth: Animals and humans did “emerge from the same place”—the hand of God. (Colossians 1:16) That makes them worthy of humans’ careful attention.
The U.S. government manages bison herds in Yellowstone National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Montana’s National Bison Range, and elsewhere. Yellowstone managers have tried for years to return portions of their bison herds to tribes or other locations. Now that transfer could finally happen.
Officials plan to continue returning bison to their earliest stomping grounds. The hope is to restore not only the bison but also the Western plains and the people who call it home.