- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Last fall, hundreds of publicly owned bison went to private owners, but there wasn’t always an exchange of money.

All four of the government-owned herds in the western Dakotas were rounded up in a string of operations across the region’s expansive plains, badlands and forests.

In all, more than 3,000 of the shaggy, hump-backed beasts were corralled, and 1,159 of them were removed to bring the herds back within population targets.

Buyers paid $378,425 for the 223 bison that were auctioned from Custer State Park in South Dakota. The proceeds stayed with the state park system.

But two of the three national parks in the region did not charge for their bison, and a third national park accepted, for its bison, a donation far below market price.

The Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit, gave a $40,000 donation to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and got all 103 of that park’s culled bison. That comes to a little more than $388 a head, whereas the market value of a single bison is about $2,000.

And Native American tribes - some acting through a clearinghouse, and others dealing directly with the parks - received 426 bison from Badlands National Park in South Dakota and 407 from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, all free of charge but with roundup costs such as feed, labor and veterinary supplies shared in some cases.

Tribal uses of the bison include spiritual ceremonies, school lunches and elderly nutrition programs, but if they wish, the tribes can sell the bison - immediately in some cases, and after a one-year waiting period in others - and pocket the money.

Dan O’Brien, who raises bison near South Dakota’s badlands, said he has purchased park-raised bison from many tribes, as have other ranchers.

“I’m not opposed to those buffalo going to the tribes, even for free,” he said. “But I can certainly understand why it would upset some people.”

The bison at national parks roam land owned by the American people. So why are national parks giving away bison for far less, and only to certain groups? The answer is behind layers of bureaucracy and thick dust kicked up by centuries of racial and cultural conflict on the Northern Plains.

Until at least 2010, national parks charged a cost-recovery fee to the tribes and nonprofits that received excess bison. The fee ranged from a few hundred dollars to about $700 per animal and was intended to cover the cost of rounding up the herd. Roundups at national parks, which can involve dozens of workers plus pickups, all-terrain vehicles, horses and even helicopters, can be expensive endeavors costing up to $50,000.

In 2010, word came down from the Interior Department, which governs the National Park Service, that parks no longer could charge cost-recovery fees to bison recipients. Several officials at the Northern Plains parks who were interviewed for this story still don’t know why the policy was changed.

Jim Stone said he knows. He’s the executive director of the Rapid City-based InterTribal Buffalo Council, which serves as a clearinghouse for tribes that want bison and parks that have a surplus.

The Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1PLMcCe ) asked Stone if the council had a hand in terminating cost-recovery fees.

“Oh, we had a hand in it,” he said. “Maybe more than a hand. Probably a couple of feet.”

Stone said the council lobbied Interior Department officials and persuaded them to drop the fees.

The council argued that its relationship with the Interior Department and the national parks should be a partnership rather than a business arrangement. The council is a federally chartered Native American organization empowered and owed support by centuries’ worth of federal law and treaties, and it gets funding from the Interior Department, just as the national parks do.

Requiring the council to pay parks was a “shell game,” Stone said.

“They were taking money from one arm of Interior and giving it to another arm of Interior,” he said, “and it really didn’t make any sense.”

The cost-recovery fee also put the council in the position of a customer, when in reality the council is providing a valuable service, Stone said. The council acts as a single point of contact for parks to distribute hundreds of bison to 60 tribes in 19 states, thereby saving the parks from having to deal with all those tribes individually.

History also might have played a role in the decision to stop charging cost-recovery fees, as well as the decision to give national park bison mostly to tribes. All of the western Dakotas land on which publicly owned bison herds roam was once promised to Native Americans in treaties that the U.S. government later broke. The thousands of bison that make up those herds are only a tiny fraction of the millions that roamed the Americas before they were driven to near-extinction, in large part by white hunters.

O’Brien summarized the probable motivation for giving surplus bison to the council and its member tribes.

“It’s a way,” he said, “to soothe some guilty consciences.”

All of that explanation might help people see why cost-recovery fees were terminated, but it does nothing to help the national parks fill the resulting budget holes.

At Badlands National Park, the expense of roundups simply stayed in the budget while the income earmarked to pay for them vanished. Park Superintendent Eric Brunnemann was guarded in his description of how the situation has been managed, saying that when the budget is drafted, “We decide on where the priorities of the park should be.”

Eventually, he said, to pay for the roundups the park may need to request an increase in its base funding from the Interior Department through the congressional budgeting process.

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, revenue from recreation fees was applied to last fall’s bison roundup, but Blake McCann, a wildlife resource manager at the park, said, “The indication is that we’re probably not going to be able to use that in the future.”

“We’re open to exploring new alternatives of how we do roundups and pay for them,” McCann said.

At Wind Cave, national park officials have capitalized on the genetics of the park’s herd to forge a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. The herd has high genetic diversity and is considered free of cattle genes; as such, the conservancy views the herd as deserving of special protection.

Corissa Krueger, manager of The Nature Conservancy’s Western Dakotas Program, said the Wind Cave herd should number more than 1,000 to adequately protect its genetics, but the park doesn’t have enough land and grass for a herd that large. The park’s herd numbered about 500 before last fall’s roundup.

The conservancy hopes to grow the herd by placing hundreds of Wind Cave bison on its ranches in South Dakota and elsewhere.

“If something were to happen to the Wind Cave herd like a calamity or some disease,” Krueger said, “we could bring animals back to the park and help bring those genetics back, as well.”

The problems that afflict the management of surplus bison in national parks are positive in at least one way. They show that the parks and its partners have been successful in their efforts since the early 1900s to help bring bison back from the brink of extinction.

By at least one account, the three Northern Plains national parks that have bison herds have provided at least 10,000 bison to tribes and other entities during all their years of culling. Those bison have gone on to reproduce, helping raise the American bison population into the hundreds of thousands.

But the success has brought new challenges. O’Brien, the private bison rancher, said many tribal and federal grasslands have reached their grazing capacity, and each year’s new calf crop brings a need for more land. Adult bison weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds and consume about 30 pounds of roughage per day.

“We’ve got buffalo coming out of our ears,” O’Brien said. “We’ve got more buffalo than large landscapes to put them on.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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