Tribal ranchers regain South Unit leases on Badlands |

Tribal ranchers regain South Unit leases on Badlands

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor
Lorraine "Tudy" and Melvin Swallow ranch in the Badlands of South Dakota. They were notified in 2013 that they wouldn't be able to use their grazing leases after Oct. 31, 2015, because the tribe was going to introduce buffalo to that area. The tribal council voted in October 2014 to rescind the ordinance that prompted that action. The Swallow family will continue to run cattle on their lease, but the issue of a Tribal National Park hasn't been resolved. Courtesy photo.

Ranchers in the South Unit of Badlands National Park are breathing a sigh of relief. Their cattle will not be replaced by tribally-owned buffalo anytime soon.

The Oglala Lakota Tribal Council 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).

That ordinance directed the Bureau of Indian Affairs to notify ranchers who held the grazing leases on the affected grazing units that they would no longer have access to that property.

The plan to introduce buffalo to that area was based on a feasibility study by Ranch Advisory Partners. According to the financial breakdown in that plan, the tribe would have lost an average of $243,000 a year for the six years the study covered, from 2013 to 2018, for a total loss of more than $1.43 million.

The proposed agreement with the NPS also stopped the payments from the North Unit gate receipts, which, for the last 10 years, have averaged more than $500,000 a year for the tribe. The tribe also would have lost the income from the grazing leases—approximately $250,000 a year.

Deputy superintendent of Badlands National Park, Reed Robinson, was careful to point out that there are three parts to the story—the Tribal National Park proposal, the environmental assessment, which dealt with the buffalo management, and the relationship between the tribe, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the ranchers who hold the grazing leases.

“The key point is the general management plan was tribally-driven, tribally approved,” Robinson said.

The tribal council voted Oct. 6, 2014, to rescind Ordinance 13-21 completely.

What happened between June of 2013 and October of 2014 was a lot of heartache, hope, fear, grassroots action and education.

A grassroots movement by the ranching families that would have lost their grazing leases—and in some cases their homes–to the buffalo, spread across the reservation.

Melvin and Lorraine “Tudy” Swallow hold the lease on grazing unit #518, in the middle of the South Unit.

Both of their families were among the 900 families displaced in 1942 when the federal government claimed 385,000 acres of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for an Aerial Gunnery Range. They were given two weeks notice and $75 to abandon their homes, Tudy said.

Those not on the gunnery range, but adjacent to it, like Melvin’s grandparents, were allowed to move back after World War II, Tudy said. The people who owned land on the gunnery range were not given the opportunity to buy back their land until the 1960s. Some people did buy their land back. The mineral, grazing and water rights to the remaining 133,000 acres were restored to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, with the understanding that it would be co-managed with the National Park Service, as a Tribal National Park. This plan has been in the works for nearly 40 years.

When the certified letter telling the Swallows their lease would be terminated Oct. 31, 2015 arrived, it felt like history was being repeated, Tudy said. “You look at each other like you work so hard all your lives… You just wanted to cry,” she said.

The Swallows’ home is on the north side of the highway that creates the south border of the proposed Tribal National Park. As they understood it, their home would have been included in the TNP. “That was where I stood my ground,” Tudy said.

Hundreds stood with her. Landowners, lease-holders and tribal members made their voices heard at public meetings, in the media and at social gatherings.

When the November 2014 election came around, tribal members said they wanted new representation—re-electing only four of the 19 tribal council members, and choosing a new president.

Chancy Wilson, a rancher who holds one of the affected leases, was elected as the Medicine Root District Representative in November. He speculated that the previous council rescinded the ordinance in a last-ditch attempt to get votes in the election. If that was the plan, it didn’t work.

There is still plenty of confusion regarding this issue. The media reported in October that the issue would be sent to a referendum for the entire tribe to vote on within 90 days, but according to Wilson, since the referendum was not introduced in resolution form, it became null and void.

Swallows, Wilsons and the other ranchers received letters saying they have their leases back. Their ranch management plans won’t change in the near future. Their leases have to be renewed every five years, so the notice they received of their lease renewals are extended only until 2017, Wilson said. That’s not because the lease is shorter, but because that’s when the original leases were due for renewal, and those leases haven’t changed.

According to Robinson, the Tribal National Park is still in the works. The issue of how that will look, and the relationship between the tribe and those already on the land is what still needs a resolution. F