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Tribes work toward a bison economy

KYLE, S.D. - There's buffalo, and there's buffalo.

Bison actually, but the differentiating factors are whether or not it's grass-fed treated with dignity or feedlot force fed and treated like a commodity.

The feud between the two philosophies means the public is either being duped or by lack of education, getting a product that is beef in a buffalo robe.

Tribal bison ranchers and tribes themselves are working hard in an effort to bring back the healthy product that kept so many people alive for hundreds of years to not only provide food for tribal members, but to create an economy.

There is a cavernous gap between the bison ranchers who view the animal as an essential part of the ecosystem while providing valuable health benefits to consumers and those who exploit the bison and the market strictly for profit.

Tribal bison managers and bison ranchers gathered on the Pine Ridge Reservation to discuss marketing and range management. Oglala Lakota College, acted as the host of the meeting. OLC has incorporated a bison study program into its curriculum in conjunction with Little Priest Tribal College on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska.

The study at OLC of 50 to 60 head of bison is to determine traffic patterns, social structure and other behaviors. Other studies between the colleges will include bone density and biological information, according to Dr. Kim Winkelman, vice president of Oglala Lakota College.

"We combine medicine and oral traditions and think holistically about the bison. Through science and understanding of the Lakota perspective on science we are validating our oral traditions," Winkelman said.

He said that what observers and scientists are now learning is what American Indians have known for centuries. As producers and ranchers observe the bison, more is learned about their behavior that can be incorporated into the management of the animal. Or as Jimmy Sam, director of the Oglala Parks and Recreation Authority on the Pine Ridge Reservation said, "We don't actually manage the bison. They manage themselves."

Kibbe Conti, nutritionist, said the grass-raised bison hold a better fat level, with a better yellow color than that of the feedlot bison that may show more marbling and have a white fat.

"There is a distinct nutritional aspect of bison, especially in the role of diabetes prevention and wellness," she said.

To that degree, tribes bring in their own regional culturally-based method of healthy eating, but bison for the Great Plains Tribes is a staple, as tradition teaches.

Conti uses a medicine wheel to determine the nutritional values of each region, from the northwest where fish is prevalent to the south where various crops were plentiful.

"The medicine wheel represents balance."

The challenge is to put bison meat and the medicine wheel into practice in the schools and elder commodity programs. Bison is not listed as an amenable meat by the United States Department of Agriculture, therefore it is not included in the school lunch programs if it is grass-raised and field harvested.

Feedlot-raised bison taken to processing plants then killed on site are able to be used in schools, and for other food programs.

But to adhere to a humane harvest with a completely grass -raised bison requires different treatment. First, in order to sell the product it has to be inspected before the harvest, usually in the field at the expense of the rancher. It then has to be taken to market within two hours.

The alternative, said Judy Wood, bison consultant to the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, is to load the bison in a truck, which causes stress and unload it in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings with strange smells. When the animal is stressed, it creates inferior meat.

She said it is not uncommon for a truck load of bison to reach its destination with at least one bison dead, and many injured because of fighting and stress during the trip. Much of the meat has to be condemned.

That's where the treatment of bison by cattle ranchers who chose not to change their methods draws criticism and at times angst from the purist bison rancher and tribes.

The knowledge that comes from the Lakota is now being discovered by many people.

"When the buffalo dance, we dance, when the buffalo live we live," Dr. Winkelman said.

Observers have found that buffalo live in families, a family unit may consist of 40 or 50 cows, calves and young bulls, and they manage themselves very well.

The traditional method of harvesting bison used by the Lakota was to move the herd in a counterclockwise circle until the herd moved off leaving one or two young bulls standing that were either chosen or gave up themselves to feed the Lakota people.

Removing one cow from a family unit can bring results that create havoc for other family units, Wood said. "The bison become dysfunctional, like removing one of your family members."

The key to raising good buffalo is to raise integrated herds, said Sam Hurst, documentary film maker and bison rancher.

"Putting buffalo in a feedlot was nutty. The meat turned into a gray, hockey puck hamburger and people thought it was awful. They were eating poor buffalo.

"These are families out there. When you look at buffalo, you are looking at families."

He said when he started his ranch; he was also interested in preserving the ecosystem. Many articles have been written about the bison and a healthy ecosystem. The ecosystem is not healthy, but work is under way to change that, Hurst said.

T. M. "Bull" Bennett, Micmac and Ph.D. candidate at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, conducted a data research project on part of the Powder River area in Wyoming. The land he studied, from 1982 through 2000, showed signs of deterioration of the ecosystem prior to the incorporation of bison as the grazing component. He said there were signs of recovery, but he couldn't definitively put the recovery to the bison alone.

So what is the tribal bison rancher to do? It was suggested that all ranchers get together, meet with state and federal officials who maintain herds and with other ranchers and open the ranges up to allow for healthier grazing patterns.

Marketing is another problem and with a collective group focused on marketing healthy bison, harvested by humane methods, the demand for the meat may increase.

"The bison may be a way toward reconciliation. We can sit across from each other (cattle ranchers and bison ranchers) and discuss ways to save the ecosystem," Dr. Winkelman said.