By Dr. Trudy Ecoffey, Executive Director of Tanka Fund
“It’s all spirit and it’s all connected.” – Grandfather William Commanda, Algonquin
There is a symbiotic relationship between bison and prairie dogs. On a hot afternoon in mid-July, when I was the senior wildlife biologist at the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Department and needed to find the tribal buffalo herd to show some visitors or just do a routine check, it was a good guess to head to one of the prairie dog towns in the buffalo pasture to find the herd. Nine times out of ten, that’s where they would be — eating on the more nutritious, rich grass that was kept cropped like a manicured lawn by the prairie dog. Or the buffalo would be wallowing around on the ground making dust storms, made possible by the disturbed soil that had been tilled up near the holes that the prairie dog maintained for their extensive burrows and tunnels. The buffalo would wallow to keep the flies and other pesky insects at bay.
The buffalo would also help keep this grass cropped, and this helped the prairie dogs from having to do so much clipping. The prairie dog wants to be able to see above the grass to be able to warn others of predators with their chirping bark, so the grass is eaten and clipped short. If the grass is too tall, it is easier for predators to invade the dog town.
It seems like an unlikely relationship with an exceptionally large herbivore and a very small herbivore, but there is definitely something going on there. They had some type of mutual understanding. The prairie dogs seemed unconcerned with the large animals invading their towns.
There are dozens of other animals that directly or indirectly rely on the prairie dog for their habitat, food, shelter, etc.: black footed ferrets, burrowing owls, swift fox, and many others. Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species by ecologists. However, many times prairie dogs get a bad rap because they eat and clip grass, and that seems to be in direct competition with other grazers such as cattle or buffalo. Any animal that is overpopulated can be a problem, so many producers are mindful of that.
Understanding how the prairie dog benefits the ecology of the area around them is many times not tolerated. Finding a balance between the plants, the grazers, and the predators can be a challenge, particularly when you start putting up fences and thinking that you can mimic the natural order of things. Eradicating animals from an area for the benefit of another species may do more harm than good. It’s all in the perspective of things and how the natural order of the prairie ecosystem works.
I am always reminded how things are connected when it comes to the ecology of buffalo and the world they live in. I am reminded how insignificant we can be to change things, and yet I am also reminded how our decisions can totally cause an imbalance. Currently at Tanka Fund, we are in discussion about what we are truly doing when we return buffalo to the land. What impact does it have compared to other species? How can we ensure the caretakers of the buffalo can be able to financially maintain the herds and yet be mindful of the conservation of the land?
We are working with partners such as InterTribal Ag Council, Makoce Agriculture Development, Village Earth and others with the goal of Regenerative Agriculture. Tanka Fund will be launching the new sister to the Tanka Family along with Tanka Bar (Native American Natural Foods), which is Tanka Resilient Agriculture Cooperative (TRAC). The goal is to provide marketing opportunities for producers to market grass-fed, organic, GMO-free, humanely handled, Native-raised animals. This is in a value-added opportunity where producers will be able to find more ways to enhance their revenue stream. TRAC will help to provide technical assistance, financing avenues and guaranteed purchase agreements.
At the Tanka Family, we believe that we are all connected, and we must strive to build off our mission statement. We are all of one spirit of the mission, and believe in the communities that we serve. Like the buffalo and the prairie dog, even when we seem to be in competition, let’s work together to make a better environment for everyone.