Perched atop a fence in Badlands National Park, Troy Heinert peered out from under his wide-brimmed hat at a corral where 100 wild bison awaited transfer to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Descendants of the tens of millions of bison that once roamed the Great Plains of North America, the animals would soon clatter up a ramp, travel by truck across South Dakota, and join one of the many growing herds. that Heinert has helped reestablish on Native American lands.
Heinert nodded to a park service employee as the animals stomped their hooves and kicked up dust in the cold wind. He got a brief call from Iowa about another herd being transferred to tribes in Minnesota and Oklahoma, and then talked to another trucker about even more bison headed for Wisconsin.
As night fell, the last buffalo shipped from the Badlands were unloaded on the Rosebud Reservation, where Heinert also lives. The next day, he was on his way back to the Badlands to load 200 bison for another tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux.
“Buffalo walk in two worlds,” said Heinert, 50. “Are they commercial or are they wild animals? From a tribal perspective, we have always considered them wild animals, or to go one step further, as a relative.
Now 82 tribes in the United States have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds, and that has been growing along with a desire among Native Americans to reclaim stewardship of an animal their ancestors relied on for millennia.
European settlers shattered that balance and drove the bison nearly to the brink of extinction until some conservationists, including Teddy Roosevelt, stepped in to reestablish a small number of herds.
The long-term dream of some Native Americans is to bring bison back to life on a scale rivaling the herds that roamed the continent in such numbers that they shaped the landscape itself. Heinert, a state senator from South Dakota and director of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, sees his job more practically: bringing bison to tribes that want them, whether it’s two animals or 200.
“All of these tribes depended on them at some point,” he said. “Those tribes are trying to get back to that, to reestablish that connection.”
For centuries, bison established rhythms of life for the Lakota and other nomadic tribes. Skins for clothes and tipis, bones for tools and weapons, horns for ladles, hair for ropes; a constant supply of bison was essential.
In so-called “buffalo jumps,” herds were thrown off cliffs and then butchered for days or weeks.
European settlers brought a new level of industry to the business, and the slaughter of bison increased dramatically. Its parts were used in machinery, fertilizers, and clothing. By 1889 only about 1,000 remained.
“We wanted to populate the western half of the United States because there were a lot of people in the east,” Deb Haaland, the US secretary of the interior and the first Native American to serve on a presidential cabinet, said in an interview. “They wanted all the Indians dead so they could take away their land.”
The mindset at the time was, “If we kill the buffalo, the Indians will die. They won’t have anything to eat,'” she added.
The day after the transfer of bison from the Badlands, Heinert’s son, T.J., had his rifle pointed at a large male bison at the Wolakota Buffalo Camp. In just two years, the tribal company has restored some 1,000 bison on 28,000 acres (11,300 hectares) of rolling, brush-covered hills near the Nebraska-South Dakota border.
The 28-year-old had talked all morning about needing a perfect shot in 40-mile-per-hour winds. The first bullet went through the animal’s ear, but it moved about 200 yards (182 meters) away to join a larger group of bison that the hunter followed in an all-terrain vehicle.
After the animal finally went down, Heinert walked over and put the rifle behind its ear for a shot that stopped its flailing.
“We shot it down,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
The Rosebud Sioux intend to expand the herds on the reservation as a reliable source of food.
Others have more ambitious visions: Blackfeet in Montana and tribes in Alberta want to establish a “cross-border pack” spanning the Canadian border near Glacier National Park. Other tribes are proposing a “buffalo commune” on federal land in central Montana where tribes in the region could harvest the animals.
“What would it look like to have 30 million buffalo in North America again?” said Cristina Mormorunni, a Métis Indian who has worked with the Blackfeet to restore bison.
Haaland cautioned that it can’t possibly be completely the same: there are too many fences and houses. But her agency has become a primary source of bison, transferring more than 20,000 to tribes and tribal organizations over more than 20 years.
The transfers sometimes raise objections from ranchers, who fear the bison could spread disease and compete for pasture. However, demand from the tribes is growing, and Haaland said the transfers will continue. That includes about 1,000 bison trucked in this year from the Badlands, Grand Canyon National Park and several national wildlife refuges.
Back at the Wolakota Buffalo Camp, Heinert sprinkled chewing tobacco along the back of the bison he had just shot and prayed. The half-ton animal was then loaded onto a flatbed truck for the bouncing ride to the ranch’s headquarters.
About 20 adults and children gathered as the bison was lowered onto a tarp.
“This relative gave himself to us, for our sustenance, our way of life,” said Tribal Elder Duane Hollow Horn Bear.
Soon, the tarp was covered with bloody footprints from people who butchered the animal. They tore it apart, sawing through the bone, and then cut meat from its legs, tailbone, and huge hump. The children, some as young as six, were given knives to cut through skin and fat.
Katrina Fuller, who helped guide that effort, dreams of training others so all 20 communities on the reservation can come to Wolakota for her own work. “Maybe not now, but in my lifetime,” she said. “That’s what I want for everyone.”
Melissa Galbraith is the World News reporter for Globe Live Media. She covers all the major events happening around the World. From Europe to Americas, from Asia to Antarctica, Melissa covers it all. Never miss another Major World Event by bookmarking her author page right here.