by Trudy Ecoffey, Tanka Fund Executive Director
They will return again.
All over the Earth
They are returning again
Ancient songs of the Earth
They are returning again.
Oglala Lakota, Crazy Horse (cited by Geist, 1996)
Much of the North American prairie developed under the influence of large grazing animals (buffalo) and sweeping prairie fires. There was a climate, plant, fire, and animal interaction that influenced prairie’s evolution, particularly in the Great Plains region. With that dynamic, it was one of the largest grassland ecosystems in the world. I think that is what Crazy Horse might have been expressing in his song. The ancient songs of the Earth are balanced by the ebb and flow of plants, climate, geology, animals (meaning people too), and disturbances, such as fire.
I thought of this as it is now fire season in South Dakota, and already we have had a few grass and tree fires on the Pine Ridge Reservation. At first, fires seem very destructive, but eventually the green grass sprouts up and all seems purged of the past. The animals are then attracted to the fresh green grass that sprouts up following the event. The young green grass sprouts are highly nutritious.
Plants of the Great Plains have adapted with grazing and disturbances, such as fire. Many grasses of the Northern Great Plains have roots systems that can regenerate that plant without having to go to seed. The roots literally spread across the ground, some barely under the soil surface. Many of those grasses do not require seeds to reproduce, the roots just keep on spreading. Therefore, if fire burns the plant, or a grazing animal eats the plant before the grass is able to produce a seed, the plant will still continue to grow. For some prairie plants, the root system is sometimes 5 to 10 times longer than that actual plant. The carbon sequestered in those roots systems are extensive. So, keeping these plants viable can certainly help with the global issue of climate change to some degree.
Nature is always trying to find balance. If the balance of nature is disturbed, nature will find a way to try to heal itself and try to return to a “normal” again. It may take a day or two, or a year or a lifetime or more to return to a somewhat balanced state. With bison returning more and more to this region and all across North America, you can see a renewal and regeneration of plants and other animals that follow once bison are reintroduced. This in turn can eventually help the soil become healthier. In return, we hope to also see healthier people as well. Not just physically from eating a healthier diet and economic improvement, but also an emotional, spiritual, and cultural regeneration that was lost when the buffalo were literally wiped from the economy of the Native people.
Tanka Fund’s goals are to not only look at the economic viability of returning bison, but we are also looking at the environmental and ecological benefits of the return of buffalo. Tanka Fund is working on research to document the soils and soil improvements in buffalo pastures. We are also working with Native producers on grazing plans so they can help the buffalo manage the plant community and forage availability better. Bison once had the total freedom to roam freely, guided by instinct and nature; now most bison are confined to pastures under fences. However, with good management and planning, producers can work toward a sustainable and regenerative environment. This includes working to protect the food source, which is those grasses.
It is doubtful that the bison will ever be able to roam as they once did, but with good sound grazing management, they can still make a major impact on the grassland ecosystems on Native lands. This, I believe, is the ancient songs of the Earth, regenerating the valuable resources that once were viable. So let’s continue that song…let’s return more buffalo to the Earth.