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Alex Schwartz
Herald and News, Report for America

With the Modoc Nation’s recent purchase of an overgrazed ranch near Sheepy Ridge, bison may be headed to the Klamath Basin — along with, tribal leadership hopes, cultural healing.

The 496-citizen tribe, based in Miami, Okla., includes the descendants of 155 Modocs who the U.S. government transported on cattle cars from Fort Klamath in Oregon to Oklahoma after the Modoc War in 1873. Recently, the tribe has purchased several properties in the Tulelake area near the Oregon and California border, intending to develop a presence on lands they were forcibly removed from.

“It’s kind of another step towards coming home,” said Modoc Nation Second Chief Robert Burkybile.

During the last three years, the tribe purchased two adjacent properties at the foot of Barntop Mountain, in the sagebrush uplands that separate Lower Klamath Lake from Tule Lake. The tribe intends to restore these ecosystems, which have been overgrazed for decades after nearby hunting lodges began leasing land to ranchers.

Ken Sandusky, the Modoc Nation’s newly-appointed resource and development director, said the area has a deeper meaning, too.

During the Modoc War, when the two massive lakes blocked most overland travel between Linkville and the Lava Beds, wagons could only carry supplies to the U.S. Army through this corridor.

“This piece of land is so cool for the tribe to buy,” Sandusky said. “It might be run-down and mismanaged, but it’s significant.”

The Modoc Nation ranch features a livestock area that Sandusky hopes in the future will support bison on the land. (Photo by Herald and News)

Sandusky is Choctaw, but was born and raised in Klamath Falls, where he’s become part of the local tribal community. A history buff, he learned all he could about the Modoc War from a young age. After 14 years in public affairs with the U.S. Forest Service, most recently with the Modoc National Forest, he’s helping the Modoc Nation manage their new property and figure out how to repurpose it.

After a century of overgrazing, the land is in tough shape. Junipers and invasive grasses are choking out sagebrush, leaving the area ripe for wildfire. Mangled fences and dilapidated sheds dot the uplands. Sandusky said he spent weeks hauling trash and metal scraps from a massive burn pit near a barn and irrigated field. Removing cows from the land for just a few months has already led to the return of some native grasses, Sandusky said.

“I hate to insult the people who ran it, but you can’t not see what they did to it. This is just extremely overgrazed and mistreated land,” he said.

Sandusky plans to remove the younger junipers, treat the non-native grasses and sprinkle native seeds over the area. Beyond restoring the land’s fire resiliency, it will also increase groundwater recharge and provide habitat for sage grouse, which are expanding into the area from Clear Lake.

The tribe hopes to work with both the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on restoration efforts — both on the property and the adjacent public lands.

But Sandusky emphasized that nothing’s definite yet.

“Nobody’s made any agreements or commitments other than just to get together and talk about it,” he said.

The bison would come multiple years down the road, after the land has had a chance to regroup. And the tribe hopes to manage them in a way that will further ecosystem recovery.

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Sandusky uses these kinds of regenerative grazing practices with a goat herd to accomplish restoration objectives on his own property—the goats act like “little lawnmowers” that keep ground vegetation in balance.

Ken Sandusky holds a piece of medusahead, an invasive grass. (Photo by Herald and News)

Any grazing animal, including cattle, can play this role on a ranch, but it all comes down to how you manage the herd, Sandusky said. And because bison are worth more per head, it will likely be more economically feasible for the tribe to raise livestock compatible with the land’s carrying capacity. According to some sources, this area of southcentral Oregon was the edge of a western arm of the bison’s original range.

Burkybile said bison are one of the Modoc Nation’s most successful business enterprises in Oklahoma, and they hope to replicate the operation in the Klamath Basin.

Most individuals in their 275-head herd come from the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, which distributes animals that have to be removed from areas overpopulated with the ungulates. Though the bison will play a role in management of the ranchlands, Burkybile said they will provide a huge boon for the community, too.

“It’s a valuable food source that has been overlooked for a long time,” he said.

The tribe intends for the future bison operation to remain locally focused, as their existing operation in Oklahoma does. All parts of the buffalo are processed nearby and distributed directly to tribal and community members. Burkybile said there may be opportunities for local ranchers and meat processors to benefit, too, as well as other tribes in the region that have bison herds, like the Pit River Tribe.

“We want to get as much of the bison meat local,” he said. “We want to lift all boats — whatever we can do to help the local economy and help the people.”

Sandusky thought back to the history of this land and what it means to have Indigenous people in charge of it again. He envisioned a cultural camp for Modocs — belonging to both the Klamath Tribes and the Modoc Nation — where people could get in touch with their homelands through ceremony.

Especially given the Modoc Nation’s previous forays into the basin, which have drawn local controversy, Burkybile emphasized that the tribe’s only goals with these ranches are restoration, partnership and community enrichment.

“We’re excited to be a part of the basin,” he said. “[The land] is not only ours and everyone else out — it’s for all of us. We just want to be good stewards of the land. That’s our main focus.”

Sandusky and Burkybile said they hope to work with the Klamath Tribes, who are also leading efforts to deepen connections with their homelands. They recently tended a ceremonial fire for 30 days near Chiloquin as part of a community health effort. Klamath Tribal Chairman Don Gentry said tribal leadership envisions something similar with Modoc people.

Though the history between the two groups has been difficult, Gentry said the Klamath Tribes have partnered with the Modoc Nation on previous initiatives and have a good working relationship, though they haven’t directly discussed plans for the Sheepy Ridge properties yet.

“We certainly want to work with them cooperatively,” Gentry said.

For Sandusky, the sagebrush steppe is a blank canvas. He has a multitude of ideas for how to use it, all of which require community engagement and partnerships. He said he’s excited to see how the tribe can become a positive part of the community.

“The message is: Who wants to help?” he said. “Join the party.”

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The article is part of AP StoryShare.