Party animals: Buffalo herd takes dust baths, revives local economy

Published in Indian Country Today in 2005. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Porcupine, N.D. — Buffalo just wanna have fun, it seems. As we watched from about a quarter of a mile away, a 46-head buffalo herd grazed and took dust baths. Majestic, hulking bulls watched us sternly, while cows and calves flopped their bulky bodies onto the ground and squirmed with gusto, short legs bobbling. Clouds of dirt billowed into the air as they performed their dusty ablutions then leapt to their feet.

The ranch manager of the Porcupine District on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Michael Murphy, Lakota, had driven us out on the prairie for a tour of the district’s buffalo program. All around us, the lush mixed-grass range was dotted with a veritable medicine chest of native healing plants, including ceremonial sage, prairie coneflower, buffalo bellow plant, silverleaf scurf pea, daisy fleabane and many more.

            Darrel Iron Shield, chairman of the district council, explained that Porcupine District was applying for excess animals from parks — such as Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, both in South Dakota — in order to expand the herd by about 100 head. The effort is part of long-range plans to develop a sustainable local economy with jobs in the tiny community — population approximately 200. The timing was right, Iron Shield said, as were the economics. Though the price for buffalo fell a few years ago, the trend is now up, and the price per pound is about equal to that for cattle.

In the meantime, the depressed market and a several-year drought in the Plains drove out some competition, and Porcupine District is finding itself well positioned for expansion. “At the last Aberdeen sale, we got the second highest price for our buffalo calves,” Iron Shield said. “We beat established area ranches and much larger operations.” Indeed, the district’s calves were just a whisker behind the leaders—bringing in $495 each, just $5 less than the top price.

Porcupine District Planning Board member Dennis Paint thinks they’ll be getting even higher prices in days to come: “Because our land and our animals are healthy, our meat is high in important minerals like selenium. That will a marketing tool.”

            The investment in time and money required by bison is far lower than that called for by cattle. Murphy, who cares for both the buffalo herd and the district’s 280 head of Black Angus cattle, compared the needs of the two types of animals. “During a really cold storm last winter — it must have been 60 below — the cattle were huddled behind a windblock and wouldn’t even come out for their food. I had to take it to them. I went to see how the buffalo were doing, and found them on the top of a hill, rolling around and playing in the snow. They were enjoying themselves! I put out hay and cake — that’s a compressed feed in pellet form — but they ignored it. They prefer to graze, even in those conditions.”

Veterinarian bills provide another point of comparison with cattle. “The district’s vet bill is $3,000 a year,” Murphy said. “Almost all of that is preventive care for the cattle. The buffalo need TB tests, and that’s about it. They know what to eat in order to heal themselves.”

At round-up time, most bison operations use many ATVs, pickups and/or horseback riders in a high-stress event that is typically dangerous for both humans and animals. In contrast, Murphy has devised low-impact ways to round up the district’s herd. “A pickup and the cake truck is all I need,” he said. “They’ll follow the cake truck into the corral, I close the gate, and that’s it. I’ve got a few things I want to change to improve safety, like the way the gate closes, but all in all, it’s pretty easy.”

            More bison will need more land and a longer perimeter fence. Iron Shield pointed out an expanse of rock-faced bluffs to the north, where four 640-acre sections will be added to the current buffalo range — now 1,000-plus acres — for a total of well over 3,000 acres. “There’s grass below and on top of those hills,” Iron Shield explained. “And it’s good calving area, because the cows can find shelter.

            By carefully leveraging monies distributed from a settlement the Standing Rock Sioux tribe received as compensation for prime farmland lost along the Missouri River during the post-World War II dam-building era, the district has purchased seven miles of the sturdy, seven-foot-high fencing required to confine the powerful bison in the new, larger range. “We’ve spent our money wisely,” said Paint. “Thanks to our district treasurer, Kim Lawrence, we have all the internal financial controls in place.”

In addition to producing animals for sale, the buffalo program provides meat bundles for community members. It has wider ramifications as well. Murphy recently took his aunt, Arlene Murphy, to see the herd. “I was raised in a white man’s world, and I’d never seen a buffalo up close,” she recalled. “I was so frightened at first. I wanted to us to turn around and leave. Then the biggest bull approached the truck, and it was so calming. I knew he belonged, and I belonged.”

Dennis Paint has a dream. “We’re going to get a white buffalo calf,” he said. “I know we will. What we really want is excess animals from the Yellowstone herd, which are the last true wild buffalo. Just let the world know that Porcupine District is here, waiting patiently for them.”

Text and photos c. Stephanie Woodard.

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