Managing Bison In The Badlands South Unit

May 16, 2014

The Oglala Sioux Tribe's;proposed reintroduction of bison to Badlands National Park's South Unit is causing concern among many .
Credit Courtesy Badlands National Park

Transfer of Badlands National Park’s South Unit management to the Oglala Sioux Tribe has been an ongoing process since 2006. Plans for a series of public meetings on bison management in that area, and the sudden cancelation of those meetings, has raised red flags among tribal members as well as the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Their joint concerns center on the intentions of the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux tribe toward landowners and those who lease land near the South Unit.

Badlands National Park’s expansive 133,000 acre South Unit was created by Congressional legislation in 1968. Park Superintendent Eric Brunnemann says A 1976 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe allowed Badlands National Park personnel to enter and manage what had been part of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“And at that time then we were allowed…we were given an easement by the tribe,” Brunnemann explains. “An easement into perpetuity to come on to those lands and interpret, preserve, protect and do all the things parks do on the South Unit lands.”

A plan for general-management of the South Unit by the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe was enacted in 2006. Brunnemann says that plan resulted in a goal to turn the South Unit into a Tribal National Park managed by Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“That all sounds great,” observes Brunnemann. “We signed the record of decision…we did that in 2012. But we don’t know what a Tribal National Park is. It’s never been defined before.”

The past two years have been spent pursuing a greater understanding of just what a tribal national park is – a definition that involved input from the National Park Service at the local, regional and national levels as well as from the Oglala Sioux Tribe. That initial definition, says Brunnemann, has now been forwarded to Washington, D.C. for review – prior to the ultimate requirement for any new national park – Congress approval.

“That information will go to our director in the National Park Service, and then back to us here in the field,” Brunnemann explains. “Back to President Brewer, back to the tribal council, back to me. Then it will be released as a draft. It will go to tribal council. And I suspect our Congressional delegation will want to look at this. And then, if everything’s good…it’ll go to Congress. And Congress will have public meetings. It will go to committees. It’ll be reviewed and will take the next steps towards getting legislation.” 

In other words, don’t hold your breath, keep your day job, whatever applies. Despite the length of time involved in the Congressional legislation approval process, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council passed an ordinance on June 12, 2012 to begin laying the groundwork for reintroducing bison to its yet undesignated tribal national park.

It was a move, says South Dakota Stockgrowers Association executive director Sylvia Christen, that created rumblings felt at her Rapid City office 60 miles away from the reservation.

“We started hearing conversations from ranchers down on the lands that are being affected by these proposals,” Christen recalls. “They were hearing rumblings that their grazing permits were going to be changing drastically and then eventually received eviction notices on those lands that they’ve been grazing, that they’ve been paying their grazing fees for and that they have historically had access to also through their tribal rights to those lands.’

Basically the Oglala Sioux tribe’s plan to reintroduce bison to the yet undesignated tribal national park includes acquiring land adjacent to the South Unit that’s either currently owned by tribal members or leased to tribal ranchers for grazing their livestock.

Oglala Sioux tribal spokesperson Chuck Jacobs says the situation is really a non-issue fueled by a few outspoken members of the Pine Ridge Reservation community.

“The news media is blowing this out of proportion,” Jacobs declares. ”Uh…they’re listening to a small group. They’re people that will be impacted… I mean, there’s a lot of people that will be impacted…but the ones that are very vocal will be…uh…they’ve got a vested interest in maintain the status quo.”

Stockgrower’s executive director Slyvia Christen counters that those tribal members opposing plans to take their land or evict them from land they’ve used for decades to graze livestock are hardly a bunch of rabble-rousers.

“The people who are opposing this are certainly not a few random outliers,” remarks Christen. “We have tribal elders that are very concerned about it. We have ranchers who are also tribal members. And is it a vested interest? Yes, it certainly is…because it’s dealing with their economic viability. But that’s a reality that cannot be ignored in making these decisions.”

Tribal elder Robert Two Bulls opposes the tribe’s plan to take land or rescind grazing rights

“That includes this…where I live,” states Two Bulls. “Where I live is eighty acres. South of us…where I live…I own about 70 more acres. And that’s part of my father’s land…original allotment.”

Tribal members are confused about the land use.  Chuck Jacobs insists that tribal members the land they’re using was never intended to be grazed indefinitely, adding that those who did know have now passed on. Sylvia Christen questions this assertion, noting that she feels neither the park service nor the tribe have been completely honest about land ownership and land access.

Meanwhile, Badlands National Park superintendent Eric Brunnemann insists that the National Park Service has no plans to condemn anyone’s property. Neither will it allow for the expansion of the South Unit – despite the Oglala Sioux tribe’s preparations to acquire land adjacent to that area in order to establish a land base large enough to run 1000 head of bison.

The public is invited to comment on the proposed bison reintroduction on-line at:

Written comments can be submitted to:

Bison Management EA
Badlands National Park
PO Box 6
Interior, SD 57750

Comment forms (attached) will also be available at public facilities such as libraries and tribal offices.