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Bringing Bison Back to the Badlands

  • Todd Graham,
  • Jeremy Gingerich

    In what may be a huge opportunity for the Oglala Sioux, a Tribal National Park is emerging in South Dakota—the first of its kind. This area, known locally as the South Unit, is adjacent to Badlands National Park and consists of 133,000 acres of open grasslands, rolling hills, and steep-sided badlands walls.

    The South Unit lies within the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. This area was condemned by the federal government for a bombing range during World War II. In 1968, Congress conveyed the land back to the tribe with the stipulation that the land be held in trust and administered by the National Park Service (NPS). In 2012, the South Unit Final General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement was completed by the NPS and the tribe. The plan recommended that Congress designate the South Unit as a Tribal National Park. Special provisions for preferential tribal hiring and for tribal culture and customs were included. Further, the tribe could own and run buffalo on the new park.

    Formation of the park would allow the Oglala Sioux and the NPS to pursue jointly held values. The tribe seeks economic development opportunities, job creation, and a renewed emphasis on their heritage—particularly a recognition of the importance of buffalo. The Park Service wants another large buffalo herd in the Great Plains, which would advance the Department of the Interior’s Bison Conservation Initiative. Both the tribe and the NPS  seek a herd of more than 1,000 buffalo, which the South Unit’s vast landscape is capable of handling. In addition, various conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, which initiated and funded the feasibility study for reintroducing buffalo to the South Unit, could advance their bison conservation objectives with this effort. The thought of a huge herd roaming these vast expanses is compelling, regardless of who wants to see it happen.

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