This land is whose? Rancher pitted against rancher in grazing battle on Pine Ridge Reservation
Five years ago, around the time that Buffington was given the allocation, the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council decided to make the South Unit, which includes the Red Shirt range unit in contention into a buffalo park. They voted June 11, 2013, to adopt Ordinance 13-21, that would introduce 1,000 head of buffalo to the South Unit of the Badlands national park, part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The South Unit is managed in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS).
In October of that same year, the decision was reversed so the park plans were scrapped.
Curtis Temple says the rain has come at the right time, making for an excellent grass situation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Still, the grass might be greener on the other side.
The Porcupine, S.D., rancher, received word from the Bureau of Indian Affairs earlier this spring that his bids for Range Units had been denied.
But he recently won a legal battle with the federal government. The United States charged him with destruction of federal property for continuing to graze range units that had been leased to another rancher. Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey Viken dismissed the charges, and the government said it would not re-indict Temple.
The magistrate judge pointed out the federal court did not have jurisdiction over that situation, that the charges against Temple were not appropriate, and that no individual has ever been charged with “destruction of federal property” for trespassing on or grazing Indian trust land. “Indian lands are not included in the term ‘public lands,’ she said. She also points out that the Oglala Sioux Tribe has law to deal with such a situation: Any Indian who shall…willfully and knowingly allow livestock to occupy or graze on the cultivated or other lands, shall be deemed guilty of an offense and upon conviction thereof. Shall be punished by a fine not to exceed five dollars ($5.00), with costs; in addition to any award of damages for the benefit of the injured party.
But that’s the middle of the story, not the beginning.
Temple’s family has grazed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since the 1930s. Himself an enrolled member of the tribe, Temple owns several parcels of land that are interspersed with trust land and tribal land managed by the tribe. In many places, there are no fences that divide Temple’s land and the other land, which the tribe leases to ranchers as range units.
In 2012, Temple was told that the tribe had cancelled his lease for two of the units near Red Shirt he had grazed for at least 20 years, near Red Shirt, where he had established a home.
Temple appealed the decision, and according to him, “it got tabled. As far as I’m concerned it is still tabled. They never did get back together and say, ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ They kept on with business as usual – I’m still waiting for another meeting.”
Temple said that in that community, he owns about 2,000 acres – 1,000 fenced privately and another 1,000, in small parcels, “scattered” throughout the range units he had been grazing.
The two range units, 169 and P501, were allocated to Donald “Duke” Buffington, a rancher who had recently moved from Minnesota to live with his grandmother on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Buffington, also a tribal member, said he came home to help his grandma because his grandfather fell sick. He then put in for the unit Curtis had grazed for over 20 years, thinking Curtis wouldn’t miss that small piece of grazing land. Buffington applied for an allocation, and the tribal council approved his request.
“Curtis had it as Indian preference,” said Buffington, adding that Temple owns a lot more cattle than he does.
The allocation that Buffington sought is through a program designed to help young producers and those without large numbers of cattle get a start, he said.
Buffington, who lives near the range units, by Red Shirt Village, said that the tribal land committee approved his allocation request, and that they contacted him in 2012 to let him know he could graze those two units.
“I thought they told Curtis, ‘you don’t have it anymore.’ I didn’t think it would be so difficult.” Buffington said that Temple had the units based on “Indian preference,” but that the allocation system would give him preference over Temple.
Even though he would turn cattle out onto the units in question. Temple would move them back, to his grandmother’s deeded ground which neighbored the units Buffington said. “I’ve paid almost $30,000 for this lease and he’d just kick them back and kick them back.” Buffington said that he reported Temple for trespassing and before Temple’s cattle were impounded, he was unable to use the units, and his cattle would graze his grandmother’s private pasture.
Temple said Buffington is trespassing on him when he grazes the units because of the land Temple owns that is interspersed and unfenced within the two range units.
Roger Roots, an attorney who has helped Temple, said that Buffington should not have been given the allocation because the rules call for the head of the household to be eligible for such a privilege, and his grandmother already had been given an allocation.
Buffington said that although he lives with his grandmother, he pays rent, making him the head of his own household, and that even with his grandmothers’ cows (147 of his and 144 of his grandmother’s) they fall within the 300 head or less criteria for the allocation rule, he said.
None of Temple’s cattle are grazing range units currently, and the Tribal Council has denied his renewal application for all of his units, which includes a significant amount of land in the Porcupine, S.D., area, in addition to the two Red Shirt units. The council’s letter said his bids were disapproved because he is delinquent on taxes and/or fees. The letter includes a number for Temple to call with “any questions” but he said when he calls the number, nobody talks to him.
In a letter, the tribal council has told Temple that he owes $300,000 in expenses for cattle of his that they impounded, but he has never seen an itemized bill, he said. Twice they have taken his cattle off the Red Shirt Range Unit. Once, he bought the cows back, and the second time, the cows were shipped to Nebraska, held for over a month, then sold privately, and Temple received a check, less feed and transportation expenses, for the cattle.
Roots also points out that Temple hasn’t been found guilty by the courts of anything at all, and that the denial of all of this grazing units is too severe.
Temple didn’t believe the tribe sent him enough money considering the value of the cattle, but the fact that they compensated him at all seems to indicate that he doesn’t owe them for impoundment costs.
Tribal Council members, the director of land operations, a spokesman at the regional Bureau of Indian Affairs office and a media relations representative at the national Interior Department have all declined to comment on or answer any questions about the situation.
Temple has filed lawsuits against some tribal council members over the situation, which are not resolved.
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