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Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe works with feds to expand buffalo herd

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SISSETON S.D. -- Pure genetics – it’s the strength and rarity of the buffalo herd the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Sioux Tribe owns and hopes to protect, expand and market.

The tribe’s herd of 350 buffalo was started in 1991 by former tribal buffalo program manager Alvah Quinn and has been a great asset already to the community, individuals and the tribe, staff said.

That number could grow soon, thanks to help from a partnership with the U.S. Department of Ag’s Natural Resources Conservation Service under a special projects program.

Launched in 2010, more than 1,500 partnerships between the USDA and local officials and community leaders have resulted in almost $24 million of investment in high-poverty rural areas in the U.S.

Through funding from the special projects program, the tribe converted cattle fencing to buffalo fencing, enabling them to take a portion of the original herd and create a second, smaller herd to ensure pure genetics and guard against disease.

With the Strike Force funding, the tribe was able to construct more than 800 acres of fencing. They split the herd in February with the new herd now located west of Sisseton and south of Buffalo Lake in Marshall City, S.D. The original herd is on Highway 12, three miles east of Waubay, S.D.

The original herd will continue to be used for inner-tribal use, while the second herd will be used for possible sale. The tribe provides buffalo to tribal members for ceremonial uses and also donates to the food pantry, youth center and diabetes program.

Charlene Miller, fish and wildlife manager for the tribe, said they are optimistic about expanding in the future.

“This is very important to us, for our cultural needs and for the business side,” she said, as the tribe receives frequent requests for buffalo that they can’t accommodate. “This is going to be great and provide more revenue to the tribe.”

On a short trip to check on the new herd of about 30 buffalo, Charlene Miller slowly drove across the field, navigating a few boulders and waiting for grouse to scurry around the wheels of the truck where the grass is healthy and thick.

With the $87,000 in special projects funding, the tribe was also able to construct two dugouts in two of the pastures, with the pipeline hooked in to rural water. Keoke and Stacey Miller check the water tanks daily.

“It was exciting to see the animals come on to this land for the first time,” Charlene Miller said, and it’s exciting now to see the water system up and running and the grasses flourishing.

The rotational grazing system is new to the buffalo program. Staff members learned about it during a professional development class last year and implemented the system with both herds.

“We’re seeing more grass than we ever have,” said Lorne Aadland, the NRCS technician and tribal liaison who helped implement the project. He credited buffalo program technicians Stacey Miller and Keoke for their effort to keep the buffalo moving.

“They are doing a tremendous job of keeping the buffalo moved around,” Aadland. “It’s a real pain, but they are seeing the results.”

Aadland said part of the process for the special projects has been simply learning.

“Working with the tribe, we’re doing a better job of managing the grass and growing what we want and not just what is there.”

The fencing has made a tremendous difference, said Stacey Miller. The old fencing was not adequate, particularly in the winter when the snow piled up and the buffalo escaped by walking right over the fence. The new fencing is taller and stronger.

“Without this fencing, we would have been in trouble,” Stacey Miller said. “It’s awesome to be expanding our herd. Hopefully we’ll get to do more things.”

One of those new things could be expanding the number of schools they provide buffalo meat to, said assistant program manager Karena Miller.

Three schools currently use the buffalo meat and two more schools are interested.

“The schools are providing the meat once a week on their menus,” she said. “If we can expand, they could feed them buffalo three to four times a week.”

Buffalo meat is lower in saturated fat and packed with vitamins, an important thing for tribal members struggling with diabetes, she said.

The importance of the expansion is multi-faceted, said Chad Ward, buffalo program manager for the tribe. Not only could the additional herd translate into more dollars for the tribe through sales, it also supports the cultural and traditional practices of their Native history.

“Bison used to be everything to us, clothing, food, shelter and tools,” he said. “It’s very important for the youth to understand that.”

Quinn, the original founder of the buffalo program, used to talk about how important the buffalo were to the Native people.

“He would always say that years ago, the buffalo was to our ancestors what the Wal-Mart is to us today,” Karena Miller said.

They are still just as important, Ward said, just in a different way. The tribe needs to protect, utilize and capitalize on the fact that it has a healthy, pure bloodline, he added.

“We have something that’s very rare. We have a part of history.”

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