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Brian Oaster

Special to Indian Country Today

After wildlife biologists with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe successfully rehabilitated a local population of black-footed ferrets, a plague sprang up and wiped out 90 percent of the endangered animals. 

Now, the team needs funding to treat the plague and bring back the ferrets — again — as well as continue maintaining their food sources.

Protecting wildlife is expensive, and tribal conservation programs are often underfunded. Tribes like the Lower Brule Sioux are going to great lengths, often without support, to care for local wildlife populations.

“Each year I spend a lot of time writing grant proposals and securing funding, and typically it’s not much,” said Shaun Grassel, one of three wildlife biologists for tribe. “So we kind of cobble together enough to keep our program going, not really ever knowing what’s going to be available in terms of funding next year.”

A bipartisan bill before Congress called the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would direct $97.5 million in federal money toward tribal conservation efforts like the Lower Brule’s each year. 

“The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would help us implement the activities that we feel are necessary to conserve wildlife and habitats that are of greatest conservation need to the tribe,” said Boyd Gourneau, the tribe's chairman.

The measure introduced last summer would tap royalties from oil and gas development, and would not impose a public tax or fee. However, similar versions failed in 2016 and 2017.

Gourneau said the money is sorely needed. 

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“Our tribe recently developed an ambitious conservation plan and identified strategies and goals for key wildlife species and habitats,” he said, “but costs to implement the plan exceed existing funding sources.” 

Grassel noted many tribal lands are high in biodiversity. 

Part of his role on the Lower Brule is to monitor wildlife populations. 

Ferrets eat prairie dogs, which are in short supply because ranchers kill them. The biologists tried treating prairie dogs with insecticide to stop the insect-borne plague before it reaches the ferrets. They tried rounding up the ferrets one by one to individually inject them with vaccines. 

Tribal members say the process is expensive and laborious.

And it’s not just ferrets and prairie dogs.

“We’re trying to figure out what we can do to reverse the decline of pronghorn,” Grassel said. “Some of the things we can do are expensive, and sometimes experimental, and have to be done over a large landscape.”

He also says the land is facing annual losses from riverbank erosion, which could be reversed by reintroducing beavers. More planning, more expense.

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Brian Oaster, Choctaw, is a writer and seventh-generation survivor of the Trail of Tears living in the Pacific Northwest. Follow him on Twitter:@brianoaster.