PORCUPINE, N.D. - About a quarter of mile away, the 46-head buffalo herd
grazed and took dust baths. Majestic, hulking bulls watched us warily while
cows and calves flopped their bulky bodies onto the ground and squirmed
with gusto, short legs bobbling. Clouds of dirt billowed into the air as
they performed their ablutions, then leapt to their feet.
The ranch manager of the Porcupine District on the Standing Rock Sioux
Reservation, Michael Murphy, Lakota, had driven out on the prairie for a
tour of the district's buffalo program. All around the lush mixed-grass
range was dotted with a veritable medicine chest of native healing plants,
including ceremonial sage, prairie coneflower, buffalo bellow plant,
silverleaf scurf pea, daisy fleabane and many more.
Darrel Iron Shield, chairman of the district council, explained that
Porcupine District was applying for excess animals from parks - such as
Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, both in South Dakota - in
order to expand the herd by about 100 head. The effort is part of
long-range plans to develop a sustainable local economy with jobs in the
tiny community of about 200 people. The timing was right, Iron Shield said,
as were the economics. Though the price for buffalo fell a few years ago,
the trend is now up, and the price per pound is about equal to that for
In the meantime, the depressed market and a several-year drought in the
Plains drove out some competition, and Porcupine District is finding itself
well positioned for expansion. "At the last Bismark sale, we got the second
highest price for our buffalo calves," Iron Shield said. "We beat
established area ranches and much larger operations." Indeed, the
district's calves were just a whisker behind the leaders, bringing in $495
each - just $5 less than the top price.
Porcupine District Planning Commission member Dennis Paint thinks they'll
be getting even higher prices in days to come: "Because our land and our
animals are healthy, our meat is high in important minerals like selenium.
That will be a marketing tool."
The investment in time and money required by bison is far lower than that
called for by cattle. Murphy, who cares for both the buffalo herd and the
district's 280 head of Black Angus cattle, compared the needs of the two
types of animals. "During a really cold storm last winter - it must have
been 60 below - the cattle were huddled behind a windblock and wouldn't
even come out for their food. I had to take it to them. I went to see how
the buffalo were doing, and found them on the top of a hill, rolling around
and playing in the snow. They were enjoying themselves! I put out hay and
cake - that's a compressed feed in pellet form - but they ignored it. They
prefer to graze, even in those conditions."
Veterinarian bills provide another point of comparison with cattle. "The
district's vet bill is $3,000 a year," Murphy said. "Almost all of that is
preventive care for the cattle. The buffalo need TB tests, and that's about
it. They know what to eat in order to heal themselves."
At roundup time, most bison operations use ATVs, pickups and/or horseback
riders in a high-stress event that is typically dangerous for both humans
and animals. In contrast, Murphy has devised low-impact ways to round up
the district's herd. "A pickup and the cake truck is all I need," he said.
"They'll follow the cake truck into the corral, I close the gate, and
that's it. I've got a few things I want to change to improve safety, like
the way the gate closes; but all in all, it's pretty easy."
More bison will need more land and a longer perimeter fence. Iron Shield
pointed out an expanse of rock-faced bluffs to the north, where four
640-acre sections will be added to the current buffalo range - now
1,000-plus acres - for a total of well over 3,000 acres. "There's grass
below and on top of those hills," Iron Shield explained. "And it's a good
calving area, because the cows can find shelter."
By carefully leveraging monies distributed from a settlement the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribe received as compensation for prime farmland lost along the
Missouri River during the post-World War II dam-building era, the district
has purchased seven miles of the sturdy, seven-foot-high fencing required
to confine the powerful bison in the new, larger range. "We've spent our
money wisely," said Paint, Lakota. "Thanks to our district treasurer, Kim
Lawrence, we have all the internal financial controls in place."
In addition to producing animals for sale, the buffalo program provides
meat bundles for community members. It has wider ramifications as well.
Murphy recently took his aunt, Arlene Murphy, to see the herd. "I was
raised in a white man's world, and I'd never seen a buffalo up close," she
recalled. "I was so frightened at first. I wanted us to turn around and
leave. Then the biggest bull approached the truck, and it was so calming. I
knew he belonged, and I belonged."
Paint has a dream. "We're going to get a white buffalo calf," he said. "I
know we will. What we really want are excess animals from the Yellowstone
herd, which are the last true wild buffalo. Just let the world know that
Porcupine District is here, waiting patiently for them."