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Rogue Black Hills Bison Saga Ends As Tribe Removes Herd

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The return of bison to a high meadow in the Black Hills was supposed to be a symbolic step forward for several Native American tribes, but it resulted in a chaotic series of bison escapes and captures. 

Andrew Johnson remarked on the end of the misadventure last month during a meeting of the Black Hills National Forest Advisory Board. Johnson recently finished a stint as acting forest supervisor. 

“As far as we know, over a year-long saga of escaped bison on the forest is over for now until another shows up that we don’t know about,” Johnson said. “But a good success and outcome there.” 

A good outcome, that is, for all but the last three bison that were on the loose. They proved so difficult to capture, they finally had to be shot. The rest of the herd is already back on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. 

'Center of the Lakota homeland'

That’s not how the Rosebud Sioux Tribe planned it eight years ago. The venture began when Rosebud and three other tribes raised more than $10 million to buy a remote mountain meadow. 

In Lakota, the meadow is called Pe' Sla. It’s translated variously as “bald” or “clearing.” In satellite images, the meadow is a bare green spot in the dark pine forest. It’s about 15 miles northwest of Hill City. 

Ben Rhodd said Pe' Sla is a Lakota spiritual site. He works with the Rosebud Sioux historic preservation office. 

“It’s quite important, because it is the center of the Lakota homeland, and with having the bison back there is significant in a sense of the cultural and spiritual,” Rhodd said. 

After the Sioux lost the Black Hills to a broken treaty in the 1800s, the meadow became privately owned. Then it was surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest. 

When the tribes bought Pe' Sla, the Rosebud Sioux took on the management role. In 2016, they stocked the meadow with bison.  

It was part of a plan to return the land to a more natural state. Bison are good for the land because, unlike other animal grazers that follow the spring green-up from low to high elevations, bison create their own ecosystem by grazing en masse and fertilizing behind them, ensuring new grass to eat later. 

Elk implicated in escapes

But the bison started to pose a problem for the Black Hills National Forest last summer. That’s when, according to the Forest Service, as many as 70 bison escaped. 

There was a roundup, and then more bison escaped. John Kanta works for the state Department of Game, Fish & Parks. He says people started calling in bison sightings. 

“Just Joe Public that would see them out there and hunters, people just enjoying the Black Hills, you know, all of the above I guess I would say,” he said. 

And he said the bison roamed far and wide. 

“I know they were all the way up near Deadwood, and as far west as close to the Wyoming line,” Kanta said, “so yeah, we were getting reports from quite a large area around where they originated from.” 

The former manager of the herd says that’s an exaggeration. Tribal member Joe Colombe managed the herd for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe until just recently. 

He admitted that the bison got outside their fences. He said wild elk jumped into the pastures during the winter to get hay, and the elk dragged the fences down. That allowed the bison to wander out. 

“In all reality,” Colombe said, “I think elk are more destructive than buffalo.” 

Fence-fixing ahead

Over the winter, the Forest Service asked the tribe to solve the problem for good. 

Tribal officials started hauling bison back to their reservation 200 miles from the Black Hills, but there were three animals they could not catch. They finally agreed to let the Forest Service shoot and kill those bison. The carcasses were given to the tribe. 

Rhodd, the historic preservation officer, said the tribe wants live bison back at Pe' Sla. He said the tribe will add an electric fence and a cabling system to the existing barbed-wire fence. The cable will help the fence withstand jumping elk. 

Those improvements will make an already expensive project more expensive. Because of the tribe’s treaty rights, some of the funding comes from the federal government. For example, the Department of Interior has provided the tribe with at least $500,000 for Pe’ Sla during the past five years. 

Meanwhile, the tribe is planning the world’s largest Native American-owned and managed bison herd. In cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund and the Interior Department, the tribe’s development corporation will get excess animals from Interior sites such as national parks. Up to 1,500 animals will eventually roam 40 square miles of former cattle pastures on the reservation. 

- Seth Tupper is SDPB’s business and economic development reporter. 

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