Two years ago, the 28,000-acre ranch formerly known as Mustang Meadows sat empty. Seeing an opportunity, the leadership of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) began to formulate a plan to establish a new buffalo herd that would be managed for environmental, social, cultural, and economic impact. Today, the property is the site of the Wolakota Buffalo Range and home to the largest Native-managed buffalo herd in the world, with a population that is expected to surpass 1,000 animals after calving this spring.
“There aren’t very many properties that have the potential of Mustang Meadows, so when we found out it was going to be available to lease, we saw an opportunity” said Clay Colombe, REDCO CEO. “It’s pretty amazing how everything has come together and how the project has grown in just two years.”
Despite the fact that project is flourishing, there are have several major hurdles along the way. First, since the land is owned by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, REDCO needed to get permission from the Tribal Land Enterprise (TLE) Board of Directors to obtain the lease on the property. Fortunately, TLE liked what they saw from REDCO’s plan. “The Rosebud Sioux Tribe could have leased this land out and had cattle all over here and made quite a bit of money,” said TLE Executive Director Cleve Her Many Horses at a celebration for Wolakota last fall. “But when REDCO approached TLE to bring back this way of life here, TLE jumped at it.”
REDCO’s lease on the property went into effect in March 2020, and the first priorities were to raise funds to be able to operate the buffalo ranch, and make sure that the ranch had adequate fencing to safely contain the buffalo. In 2020, Wolakota also hired two full-time staff: Jimmy Doyle and TJ Heinert.
After the infrastructure and staff was in place the buffalo arrived, with the first buffalo roaming the grasslands in October 2020. In 2021, the herd continued to grow with donated buffalo from several different sources. When the dust settled, the population of the Wolakota herd hovered around 750.
“It’s a powerful feeling bringing our relatives home,” said TJ Heinert, the Assistant Range Manager, who lives on site and tends to the buffalo daily. “If our buffalo nation is healthy, we’re healthy,” he said.
With the herd approaching the long-term target population, the staff is now working to finalize a plan to maintain the herd size and ensure the financial sustainability of the project. “When it comes to the harvesting process, our buffalo will never be treated like cattle,” said Colombe, who was REDCO’s CFO when the project was launched. “We are piloting some field harvesting this year to see if that can be an option for us.”
REDCO’s goal is to be able to provide affordable bison meat locally by selling premium products in off-reservation markets such as organic grocery stores and restaurants. “Our plan is to use our off-reservation profits to offer meat at a discount for tribal members,” said Colombe.
In addition to meat processing, Wolakota is also hoping to expand community engagement opportunities at the site in the coming year. While a few student groups have been able to see the buffalo – including Sicangu students from Saint Francis Indian School and Wakanyeja Tokeyahci Wounspe Tipi – the lack of public restrooms has limited their ability to host community members and other groups. That issue should be solved by the end of the year, as REDCO plans to build a pavilion, which will include restrooms.