BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. -- Buffalo stroll undisturbed, pausing occasionally to wallow in the grass and caked dirt, while prairie dogs yip intermittently as they dive into their holes and pop out again to survey the landscape. This northern stretch of the park, known as Sage Creek Wilderness, is what the Northern Great Plains used to look like.
Several kilometres away, in the park's 53,823-hectare South Unit, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the scene is more barren. The U.S. Army forced more than 800 Oglala Sioux families to leave their homes here in 1942 so part of the reservation could be turned into a bombing range. The land has partially recovered, but the bison have yet to return.
That could soon change. The Oglala Sioux and the U.S. National Park Service are drafting legislation to create the first tribal national park -- giving the tribe the right to manage and operate the lands -- in an effort to bring buffalo back to the grasslands where they roamed long before human settlement.
These steps would reshape only a portion of the Great Plains, a landscape that has been transformed by corn fields, highways and big-box stores. But for the Oglala Sioux, the wildlife that has defined their tribe and the region's ranchers, it is a chance to reclaim an area that served as a crucible for the nation's economic and political expansion in the 1800s.
Ruth Brown, an Oglala Sioux tribal council member who is helping draft the legislation to establish the new park, said in an interview: "Our buffalo are going to be coming back to our country."
The group envisions a herd of more than 1,000 animals to ensure it has sufficient genetic diversity.
Tens of millions of bison used to range freely in North America before they were almost wiped out in the late 1800s. The American Bison Society disbanded in 1935 with the understanding it had saved the species by placing 20,000 animals in conservation herds; there are now an additional 400,000 or so being raised in the United States and Canada for meat production.
But those numbers are not enough for the buffalo to reclaim their traditional role in the ecosystem, especially because even those conservation herds amount to what buffalo herder Duane Lammers calls "islands," in circumscribed areas. Free-roaming bison provide habitat for grassland birds and other animals by grazing intermittently, leaving the grass at different heights. Cattle ranching, by contrast, leaves the grass at a more uniform level.
The Wildlife Conservation Society relaunched the American Bison Society in 2005, and a coalition of tribes, environmentalists and ranchers have been working to bring bison back to areas where there is enough available land.
"We're in a sort of a renaissance, where conservation groups are realizing it needs to happen on a larger scale," said Dennis Jorgensen, a biologist and Northern Great Plains program officer for the World Wildlife Fund.
The Badlands -- where sediment deposits have been eroded by wind and water over millions of years -- is an ideal setting for buffalo to make a comeback. Less suitable for agricultural development than other parts of the Great Plains, the federal Resettlement Administration started buying up ranches and farms in 1934 that failed during the Dust Bowl. The government ultimately bought more than four million hectares; nearly 243,000 of them became the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the national park.
"It's just a biologist's dream, in terms of intact prairie grasslands," said Trudy Ecoffey, senior wildlife biologist for the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, as she looked out at the dry, largely uninhabited terrain of the park's South Unit.
For the Oglala Sioux, who often describe buffalo in more ethereal terms, the effort to gain full control of Badlands' South Unit and repopulate it with bison has been fraught with tension. The National Park Service signed a memorandum of agreement in 1976 with the tribe to establish how it would operate the South Unit. Badlands National Park superintendent Eric Brunnemann said the original plan was "problematic," because it failed to recognize the fact the Oglala Sioux tribe is "its own country... This is a government-to-government relationship."
The push to bring back the region's native species -- including black-footed ferrets as well as swift foxes and bighorn sheep -- has been buoyed by the fact interest in Native American traditions has surged among Oglala Sioux on the reservation. More tribal members are participating in sweat lodges and sun dances, aware they are losing their connection to the past. The tribe also raises a small herd of bison elsewhere on its reservation for meat, but members say that is not the same as having them roam on parkland.
"Our land here is diminishing, our culture is subsiding," said Enos Poorbear, a supervisor at the South Unit's White River Visitor Center, adding creating a tribal national park would change that. "For the first time since the 1800s, it means we would be interpreting our history."
-- The Washington Post