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Tribal buffalo council optimistic about USDA's 'climate-smart' initiative


A newUSDAinitiative encourages food producers to employ 'climate-smart' agriculture practices and expands market opportunities for more sustainable production.

The program is also designed to focus on underserved, minority producers. In South Dakota, that largely means tribal ranches and farms.

USDA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux said the program offers opportunity for exchange between the federal agency and historically underserved stakeholders to ensure programs serve intended communities.

“There are Indian tribes all over the country that have buffalo," he said. "They don't have the benefit of the systemic support that white people have had in this country to be developing it, and harvesting it, field killing it and marketing it.”

One of the South Dakota tribal groups the USDA will partner with is the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC).

ITBC Executive Director Troy Heinert said he is excited to work with Ducheneaux and the USDA to deploy programs that understand the tribal relationship with the buffalo.

“Tribes are a little different when it comes to buffalo," Heinert said. "We let buffalo be buffalo. And the way buffalo are designed, they are a keystone species in the restoration of grasslands. And so, any support that the USDA or other agencies can give in in those efforts are going to go a long way in the restoration of those lands.”

Heinert said he has faith that, Administrator Ducheneaux in particular, understands the tribal goal is food sovereignty, not a way to commoditize their buffalo.

“We would like to see some support from the USDA to our tribes and, to ITBC, to be able to manage those buffalo as wildlife, which allows us to repair our lands," he said. "And processing is a huge, huge issue in Indian Country for any species, especially buffalo. And some support to allow for local cultural field harvest is going to be essential."

Heinert said meat distribution to tribal members is also an important climate-smart practice.

The USDA calls the new initiative climate change through voluntary, incentive-based, market-driven approaches.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.