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When a group of Native Americans took up bison ranching, they brought a prairie back to life

Bison do roam, up to tens of miles per day. Their ranging and even wallowing habits can shape plant and animal life on the prairie. (Glenn Oakley)
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In their quest to restore prairie habitat, the Cheyenne River Sioux are maintaining colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs, which cattle ranchers revile as a scourge that nibbles pasture to a nub and digs holes that hobble cattle. But more than 150 grassland species depend on prairie dog "towns." The burrowing owl makes its home in abandoned burrows. Rattlesnakes, swift fox, eagles and hawks prey on prairie dogs, as do black-footed ferrets, the plains' most endangered species. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the tribe released dozens of ferrets onto its lands in 2000. Bison often gather around prairie dog towns. "Since the dogs constantly clip off grasses, there's always new growth, and it's very nutritious for the bison," Murray explains. Young bison grow faster when they graze in prairie dog towns.

Murray and I spy a herd of distant bison under a cornflower blue sky. A few pronghorn antelope stand motionless in the middle distance, poised to skitter away. Nearby, prairie dogs peer like sentries from atop their burrows, ready to sound an alarm as they watch a hawk wheel overhead.

Though the prairie is coming back on the VE Ranch, this venture remains a risky business. Prices for bison and bison meat have been unsteady. (Alone among South Dakota tribes, the Cheyenne River Sioux have forgone income from gambling.) The park won't earn much revenue from tourist admissions until a visitors' center is built, which will take years. And not everyone is pleased.

"On our reservation, it's not Democrats and Republicans, but traditionalists and progressives," says DuBray. Progressives, he says, loathe prairie dogs, believe livestock should be fenced, prefer cattle to bison, and are skeptical of establishing a tribal park to showcase prairie restoration. Traditionalists favor all of those things; DuBray says they are looking to the past for the shape of things to come.


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