The New York Times reported this week on the return of bison and other endangered wildlife to pristine land. The Native Americans from these midwest regions have maintained the grasslands, unplowed and natural – a rarity across the rest of the American landscape. Now the tribal land is being further restored by returning its native wildlife:
For a native wildlife reintroduction to work, native habitat is needed, biologists say. On the Northern Great Plains, that habitat is the original grass, never sliced by a farmer’s plow.
Unplowed temperate grassland is the least protected large ecosystem on earth, according to the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to grassland preservation. Tribes on America’s Northern Plains, however, have left their grasslands largely intact.
“I have never been that traditional,” said Robert Goodman, [an Oglala Lakota Sioux, who moved away from his reservation in the early 2000s and earned a degree in wildlife management], 33, who released [a swift] fox and others into the wild after [a traditional] ceremony. “But that was spiritual to me.”
Wildlife stewardship on the Northern Plains’ prairies, bluffs and badlands is spread fairly evenly among private, public and tribal lands, conservationists say. But for a few of the rarest native animals, tribal land has been more welcoming.
The swift fox, for example, was once considered for listing as an endangered species after it was killed in droves by agricultural poison and coyotes that proliferated after the elimination of wolves. Now it has been reintroduced in six habitats, four on tribal lands.
“I felt a sense of pride trying to get these little guys to survive,” said Les Bighorn, 54, a tribe member and game warden at Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation who in 2005 led a reintroduction of swift foxes.
One night last fall, Kristy Bly, 42, a biologist from the World Wildlife Fund,visited the reservation to check on the transplanted black-footed ferrets. Mena Limpy-Goings, 39, a tribe member, asked to ride along because she had never seen one.
They drove around a bison pasture under the Northern Lights for hours, until the spotlight mounted on Ms. Bly’s pickup reflected off the eyes of a ferret dancing atop a prairie dog burrow.
“Yee-hoo!” Ms. Bly cheered. “You’re looking at one of only 500 alive in the wild.”
Ms. Limpy-Goings hugged herself.
“It is,” she said, “more beautiful than I ever imagined.”
(Thanks to Samantha Eye for the excellent snapshot!)