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Buffalo are being restored to tribal lands throughout the Midwest

Buffalo at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois are being sorted and prepared for relocation to tribal lands in northern Wisconsin. Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grassland project director, is in the background.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
/
Harvest Public Media
Buffalo at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois are being sorted and prepared for relocation to tribal lands in northern Wisconsin. Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grassland project director, is in the background.

An Indigenous-led effort is returning buffalo to tribal lands across the Midwest. Some of the animals come from The Nature Conservancy’s buffalo herds.

Hundreds of buffalo raised in preserves throughout the Midwest will soon begin their journey to tribal lands across the country.

It’s part of an effort led by the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a network of 79 tribal nations that work together to distribute buffalo. This year the group plans to relocate some 1,500 buffalo to member nations through its Surplus Buffalo Program.

ITBC Executive Director Troy Heinert, who is Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, has spent the past decade overseeing the restoration effort.

“We've shipped over 20,000 buffalo in our 30 years,” he said.

At their peak, millions of buffalo roamed throughout much of what is now the United States and Canada. By 1900, it’s estimated that only about 400 buffalo were left. The near demise of North America’s largest mammal was driven by the U.S. Army in the 1800s — a deliberate policy to weaken Native American tribes through starvation.

That’s why restoring buffalo, particularly under tribal management, is so important to Heinert.

“What we hope to have happen is as we restore buffalo back, it starts to heal that circle that we've been living in for the last 150 years,” he said.

The buffalo’s triumphant return from the brink of extinction is also a boon for tribal economies. Heinert said that some tribes have developed the capacity to manage buffalo commercially, by selling meat and hides.

Buffalo pipeline

About 750 of the buffalo going to tribal lands in the Midwest will come from The Nature Conservancy’s preserves in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois.

The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois has a herd of about 100 buffalo, some of which are pictured above on the far horizon. The herd was introduced to the preserve in 2014 and now produces about 30-40 calves each year.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
/
Harvest Public Radio
The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois has a herd of about 100 buffalo, some of which are pictured above on the far horizon. The herd was introduced to the preserve in 2014 and now produces about 30-40 calves each year.

That includes the Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois. It covers over 3,500 acres of restored tallgrass prairie and is home to one of The Nature Conservancy’s 11 buffalo herds.

Twenty buffalo were introduced at the Nachusa Grasslands in 2014, and 15 calves were born that following year, the first wild calves in Illinois in more than a century. Today the herd has reached a self-sustaining population of about 100.

Director Cody Considine said 30 buffalo will travel from the Nachusa Grasslands in coming weeks for their new homes on tribal land in northern Wisconsin.

“It is just an amazing feeling beyond the ecological and conservation opportunities that it represents,” he said of reconnecting buffalo with Indigenous people.

The 1,000-pound mammals are keystone species for prairie ecosystems, according to Elizabeth Bach, the Nachusa Grasslands ecosystem restoration scientist. She said buffalo help plants and animals thrive by grazing and stamping down the tallgrasses.

“They can change competition between plant species, they can transport seeds on their fur, they can kind of bring those seeds to the ground through their wallowing behaviors, and by trampling,” she said.

Bach said that buffalo aren't just an incredibly important part of the ecosystem, the animal is also a vital part of the country's cultural heritage.

“And it's really remarkable to have these animals on the landscape and to see them and to understand how they connect with people across North America and around the world,” she said. “And what that represents is really important.”

This marks the third year The Nature Conservancy has taken part in the ITBC’s program. To date it’s contributed around 270 animals to the restoration efforts.

 A field crew member at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands prepares to shuttle buffalo into a chute for tagging, swabbing and sorting. The preserve is giving 30 buffalo to the InterTribal Buffalo Council's Surplus Buffalo Program that restores the animals to tribal lands.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
/
Harvest Public Media
A field crew member at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands prepares to shuttle buffalo into a chute for tagging, swabbing and sorting. The preserve is giving 30 buffalo to the InterTribal Buffalo Council's Surplus Buffalo Program that restores the animals to tribal lands.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the InterTribal Buffalo Coalition. The correct name is InterTribal Buffalo Council. The story also stated about 100 buffalo were being sent from The Nature Conservancy preserves this year. That number is actually about 750 buffalo.

Follow Juanpablo on Twitter: @__juanpab

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.
Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Juanpablo covers substandard housing and police-community relations for WNIJ Radio in Illinois. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.