Bringing the Bison Home to Rosebud: Jimmy Doyle on the Wolakota Buffalo Range Project
In this episode, Matte Wilson from the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative chats with Jimmy Doyle, Bison Manager of the Wolakota Buffalo Range. The Wolakota Buffalo Range is a collaboration between REDCO (the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe), the World Wildlife Fund, and other private and public organizations and agencies across the United States.
Located on 28,000 contiguous acres on the southeast corner of the Rosebud Reservation, the range will be home to the largest Native-managed bison herd in the world once it is fully stocked. Jimmy shares a bit about how the project came to be, what it's like to manage a bison herd with the goal of regenerating degraded prairie land, and how this project will play a role in rekindling the connection between bison and the Lakota peoples.
Transcription available here.
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(Intro) Han Mitakuyapi, and welcome to Food Revolution brought to you by the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative. Every other week we’ll be bringing you stories of food sovereignty from community members and tribal food producers working to build a more just, equitable, and regenerative food system for the Sicangu Lakota Oyate - the Burnt Thigh Nation. Together, we're building tribal sovereignty through food, and we've set a place at the table just for you. Join us and be part of the food revolution.
Matte (00:00:30) Alright, welcome back to another episode of Food Revolution. This is Matte Wilson, and today our topic is going to be about the Wolakota Buffalo Project, which will soon be the world's largest indigenous managed Buffalo herd in the world today. Our guest is Jimmy Doyle. Jimmy, do you want to introduce yourself?
Jimmy I am the buffalo Range Manager for the Wolakota Project for REDCO here on the Rosebud Reservation.
Matte Awesome. So Jimmy, tell me a little bit about Wolakota; what organizations have been involved in this project and how long has the project been in development?
Jimmy You know that's a good question. As far as how long it's been in development, it all kinda started before I came on board, but I'd say it's been well over a year in the making, you know, as far as getting all of the approval and funding in place. And it's been a partnership in every sense. I'm sure I'll miss some of the people who've been involved in this, but, you know, REDCO of course is spearheading the efforts on the ground out here, but we have a lot of different partners who have helped make it a reality. Some of the big ones would be World Wildlife Fund has been a tremendous resource. The Department of Interior and national parks in particular, have been a great resource for us. As far as sourcing buffalo goes, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Tribal Land Enterprise has been instrumental in making this happen. The Bureau of Indian Affairs played a huge role. We just had a lot of different people and groups [that] have been involved in different ways from big to small and every, every one of them has been really helpful in getting this going and off the ground.
Matte (00:02:28) Awesome. Those are some great partnerships. So Jimmy, tell me, where is the project, the buffalo project located at?
Jimmy The property this is taking place on is known as Mustang Meadows. It's a large ranch in the southwest corner of the Rosebud reservation that was privately owned.
And then the tribe purchased it back out to over 20 years ago, give or take, uh, just shy of 28,000 acres. It's all contiguous, it's one big piece, but it's in a really remote kind of inaccessible area. It's a really neat piece of ground. A lot of it is kind of Sandhills ecosystem, which is mostly in Nebraska, cause there's just one little pocket where it gets up into South Dakota, and that's pretty much where this ranch is located. So it's kind of a unique ecosystem compared to the rest of South Dakota.
[Editor’s note: Mustang Meadows was previously owned by Alan Day, brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, prior to being purchased by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe approximately twenty years ago. The ranch was operated as a sanctuary for wild mustangs.]
Matte (00:03:36) Awesome. I actually had the chance to go out there a few weeks ago. It was a really awesome property. So I was glad I was able to see them before we released them. So Jimmy, when did you join the project and how did that process start? How'd you hear about this project?
Jimmy (00:03:55) Yeah, I came on board just before, I think it was right around the end of July when I started. I guess I don't remember exactly how I heard about it. Just kind of through the grapevine of living in the area already. And, I’ve been working in wildlife ecology and range, land management, kind of right up my alley, as far as what I'm interested in and kind of my background, I'm really excited about it. So it started towards the end of summer. And has been kind of a whirlwind ever since then.
Matte (00:04:31) Yeah, definitely. How many people are on your team or is it just you?
Jimmy (00:04:37) On the ground out here? We have myself and an assistant, but there are a lot of other people that are instrumental in the project. We have a lot of other, you know, some of those partners I mentioned earlier that are kind of working behind the scenes to help get us what we need and keep things going. Because it's a kind of a huge undertaking to turn a property of this size, we're basically starting from scratch as far as a buffalo ranch is concerned, because none of the infrastructure there is suitable for buffalo for the most part. So they all keep things moving along. TJ [Jimmy’s assistant] and I are out there doing stuff, fixing fences and working on wells and stuff like that. So it's really a huge project and it's basically two of us on the ground, but we have a lot of other people that are working behind the scenes.
Matte (00:05:30) Okay. Well, that's good to hear. How many buffalo are currently on the property, and where did they all come from?
Jimmy (00:05:37) We currently have 100 buffalo and they came from the national park culling. So fifty of them came from Badlands National Park in South Dakota. And the other fifty came from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.
Matte And what was that process like, bringing them from those parts to Rosebud?
Jimmy (00:06:01) They came in October, based on the parks’ round-up schedules, [so] they came a couple of weeks apart. So what we decided to do was hold them in a corral for a short period. The reason we did this was to get the two herds kind of socialized with one another. So they would become familiar with each other and, you know, hopefully form some bonds. So when we turned them out into this huge pasture, they wouldn't just stay as two separate herds all winter long. So the first load came from Badlands and we brought them in and loaded them into the corral. A couple of weeks later, we got the second load from North Dakota and we initially had them in two separate pens in the corra... and then we opened up the gates and let them intermingle and held them for about another week or so all together, just so they could socialize and help them kind of settle into the area and start thinking of this as home, let them get comfortable, get over the stress of being handled and shipping and all that.
(00:07:19) One of the goals before we turned them out to pasture was [for them] to be comfortable and relaxed so that they wouldn't go out and immediately run through a fence and try to find their way back home. So far, it seems to have been working. We turned them out on October 30th at a small release event. It was really nice day, nice event with a few folks turning out, and shared some remarks about the buffalo and the project. And we let the buffalo out into the pasture, so far, they seem to be doing really well and to be settling in just fine.
Matte (00:07:57) Awesome. That's great to hear, but that's pretty cool that they were able to, uh, have relatives re-introducing themselves to one another. I thought that's pretty cool. As far as the herd management, what is that like managing the herd day to day?
Jimmy (00:08:13) Well, one of the really nice things with buffalo, they're very self-sufficient, they've been living in this area for millions of years and, you know, they're just really good at taking care of themselves. So we don't really do a lot as far as managing the herd itself or the animals, essentially what we're doing is providing them the environment to thrive in. So a lot of the work we're focusing on now is infrastructure, getting fences, making them a little bit taller and stronger for the bison. And once we've started getting more of these pastures built up, we'll be rotating the herd through the pastures. That's pretty much the extent of it, you know, in the future. We'll probably round the animals up once a year, just to process and get a good herd inventory and stuff like that. But they're really a pretty hands off animal, which makes for relatively low input management, which is nice.
Matte (00:09:17) So in terms of like ecosystems approach, how will the buffalo help revitalize the prairie ecosystem?
Jimmy (00:09:24) This property that we're on, the Mustang Meadows ranch, in recent history has been kind of abused and neglected and overgrazed. So one of our main goals with this project is to show how we can use the buffalo to restore a degraded landscape and basically bring back the health of the prairie range land. You know, that entire ecosystem, buffalo are essentially kind of the umbrella species that's going to help make this all happen, but there's so much going on in the prairie aside from just the buffalo. So now we're essentially stewards of that prairie ecosystem. And by rotating the bison herd around that will help promote, you know, higher species diversity in the plant community. And hopefully bring back some more of the native plants in the area, several of the pastures that have been overgrazed or kind of dominated by less desirable invasive species. So we hope to kind of move away from that sort of plant community and back to more of a diverse, native plant community that will have affects through the whole ecosystem far as insects and other wildlife, birds and mammals and stuff. So really excited to kind of see where we can take this with planned managed grazing, as opposed to just being severely overstocked and very little management or allowing lots of grazing like in the past. We're hoping we can use this as a good model for regenerating landscapes through grazing.
Matte (00:11:15) Awesome. That sounds like a great plan. In terms of land base, how many acres are there at Mustang Meadows?
Jimmy It's just under 28,000 acres, pretty big chunk of ground.
Matte Yeah, definitely. So Jimmy, in terms of like the future, how will will it go to make buffalo meat more accessible for tribal members once again, in terms of pricing and increasing the local supply?
Jimmy (00:11:41) Yeah, so the cultural component of this project is hugely important to all of us that are involved in it. That's kind of one thing that really makes this project different than in any other large ranching enterprise on this scale, is it's not strictly focused on the economic outcomes. And the cultural part of it is huge for us, where we want to help the Lakota reconnect with the buffalo and help restore that relationship and make it real and tangible again, after the buffalo have been essentially wiped out and basically removed from this landscape. And so part of that is going to be making meat available, and we're not entirely sure what that's going to look like in the future. You know, this project is kind of, we're very much in the infancy stages and it's rapidly developing everything is changing and constantly evolving. So exactly what form that's going to take is still kind of up in the air, but it's something that we're very much on board with doing and just figuring out the mechanics of how we're doing that.
So we're probably going to be working at sort of a blended hybrid model of selling some of the meat to generate revenue because running an operation on this scale takes a huge amount of capital and a lot of investment. There is very significant expense that needs to be covered, but we don't want to lose sight of the local need for buffalo. You know, that connection with the buffalo through buffalo meat, we were kind of looking at some hybrid there where the buffalo can continue to help provide for the Lakota, in a different manner than back in the 1700s. Now it's going to look more like providing economic activity, you know, generating revenue on the reservation, generating jobs and employment. But then also still having that physical provision in the form of buffalo meat.
Matte (00:13:52) Yeah, definitely. Definitely. In terms of partnerships, is there anything in the future in terms of working with local schools such as the Lakota immersion school, if you're on the reservation?
Jimmy (00:14:09) Yeah, absolutely. And that's another part of that cultural component that's so important to this project. Again, we don't know exactly what form that will take as we move forward, but it's something that we've already started making strides. And we had some of the immersion school students out for the release event. So they, you know, they were able to feed buffalo, watch the buffalo go back on to their ancestral homelands. They learned from some of the speakers there about the role of the buffalo in Lakota culture. That's something that we're really looking to expand.
(00:14:50) And one thing we’re looking at doing, hopefully first thing next spring, is to start building a workshop on the property that will also serve as sort of an educational center and kind of a gathering area for where we can process stuff like that. Uh, so yeah, it's, again, something that isn't fully fleshed out. We're kind of taking it one day at a time, but increasing that outreach and, you know, helping the local community reconnect with the buffalo is a huge part of this project and definitely something that we want to be mindful of as we're planning our growth in the future.
Matte Awesome. We're looking forward to, I mean, this is a really great project because there's so many opportunities that from this one project, I definitely like the plans you have for, you know, working with the schools. Something that's really important to us at the Food Sovereignty Initiative is working with youth. So we're really excited to see where that project goes.
I want to just say thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to talk with us today, we really appreciate it.
Jimmy Yeah. I appreciate you having me on and thank you.
Matte Well, that was Jimmy Doyle, and this is Matte Wilson from the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative and this is the Food Revolution.
(Outro) You've been listening to Food Revolution with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative. Don't forget to follow us on Facebook at the Sicangu Community Development Corporation, Instagram and Twitter @sicangucdc, and check out our website, www.sicangucdc.org.
Many thanks to our guest Jimmy Doyle!
Host: Matte Wilson
Produced & edited by: Mairi Creedon
Brought to you by Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative of Food Revolution