A bison boost for Native economies

 

“Buffalo is better for you than skinless chicken,” Karlene Hunter will tell you. “It has more omega-3s than an avocado.”

Hunter is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and CEO of Native American Natural Foods. The company, which she cofounded in 2007, makes all-natural, low-calorie buffalo snacks (Tanka Bars, Tanka Sticks, Tanka Bites) sold in over 6,000 retail outlets, including Whole Foods, REI and Costco.

Larger than the state of Delaware, the Pine Ridge Reservation is in Shannon County, one of the poorest in the United States. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof dubbed the reservation “poverty’s poster child.” At the time of his reporting, half the adults over forty had diabetes and the unemployment rate hovered around 70 percent.

119899281_ba0374f443_z1.jpg
Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photograph from Flickr user, Jerry Burke.

Hunter’s company, which aims to source its food and ingredients from Native American producers, is now beginning a new project: Help native ranchers find economic opportunities and create more Native American sources of buffalo meat for her products.Currently Native American Natural Foods buys the wild rice it uses from Red Lake Nation Foods in Minnesota and its cranberries from processors in Wisconsin who deal directly with native growers. Yet only 17 percent of the company’s buffalo supply comes from Native producers. The new project, called the Tanka Fund, would help finance and support Natives in raising bison on Indian land in Western and Midwestern states. To make this happen, the company recently teamed up with Indian Land Tenure Foundation, a national organization that restores Native control of reservation lands that have fallen out of tribal ownership.



“It’s a pretty broad area where buffalo do well,” says Cris Stainbrook, president of the Tenure Foundation. Over the next ten years, the money that Tanka Fund hopes to raise will be used to convert one million acres of land to tribal buffalo production. In addition, they plan to help support programs that introduce “sustainable, healthy food systems in American Indian communities.”

Raising bison on Indian land isn’t new. Currently, there are groups like the Intertribal Buffalo Council, made up of 59 tribes, which own 15,000 to 20,000 buffalo intended to serve tribal communities. The Tanka Fund, however, will be looking to support entrepreneurs looking to engage in the market, rather than restoring communal herds.

The Tanka Fund has a great opportunity to restore Indian land ownership and bring economic opportunities to depressed areas like Pine Ridge. But ranching buffalo isn’t easy, and critics of the idea say the costs can be prohibitively expensive. Even Hunter says that raising buffalo can cost significantly more than raising beef. The wooly creatures need to be penned in with stronger fences, and they require more space to accommodate nomadic habits.

Dave Carter, head of the National Bison Association, doesn’t entirely agree. He says the initial investment is no different than the cattle business. “You don’t need fencing like Fort Knox,” he says. “It’s a matter of having good grass and a good social mixture,” by which he means understanding the social nature of a herd. Because buffalo are constantly on the move, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the same amount of land for both bison and cattle. Bison are easier on the land, however. “They take a bite, they take a step,” Carter says, as opposed to cows, which stay in one area and eat grasses down to the soil, exposing it to erosion.

Another advantage to raising buffalo: the animals eat different grasses at different times of the year. This helps restore root systems, which are critical carbon sinks. Prairie grass typically grows roots 15-18 feet deep with 80 percent of the plant’s carbon below the surface of the soil. Restoring the prairie could go hand-in-hand with carbon credits, adding even more financial incentive to the project.

Then come the real advantages to raising bison: A buffalo herd can forage for food without extra help. They evolved on the plains to withstand harsh winters, and thus, herds can find food on their own, even in ice and snow. This allows for a nice departure from how your next-door cattle rancher would operate during the winter, Carter says. “The good news is after a blizzard. It’s a good time for you to get a cup of coffee and watch your neighbor haul feed out.”

Wyatt Orme is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @wyatt_orme.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]ergiekontor.com.
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...