Get up close and personal with buffalo herdOne of the best-kept secrets at the Prairie Island Indian Community is not a secret at all.
By: Ruth Nerhaugen, The Republican Eagle
One of the best-kept secrets at the Prairie Island Indian Community is not a secret at all.
A herd of approximately 65 buffalo, including calves, thrives on nearly 200 acres of tribal land on Prairie Island Boulevard, just a few miles from the glitz and glamour of Treasure Island Resort & Casino.
The herd exists largely because a tribal member, the late Edwin Buck Jr., a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam, was a staunch supporter of the idea and elicited support from other veterans.
A 6-year-old bison bull was donated to the community by the Lakota Nation of South Dakota in 1991. The community purchased some bison cows.
With the support of the Prairie Island Tribal Council and community member volunteers, the project has grown steadily each year through acquisitions and also with the birth of new calves.
In addition to being a veterans memorial, the Buffalo Project serves the people of Prairie Island in other ways, according to Tribal Administrator Marv Ray, who oversees it, and Larry Scheller, a former rodeo competitor who handles day-to-day operations.
"Buffalo are sacred animals" to the Native Americans, Ray said, so there is a spiritual component. The community elders feel strongly that it is an important project.
The animals are helping promote physical health in the community as well. Two animals per month are slaughtered to provide the highly nutritional meat to Prairie Island members and their families. Lean and low in cholesterol, the meat is distributed in the form of roasts and ground meat.
"It's a good public relations program," Ray added. "It makes people more knowledgeable about the Sioux culture and the role buffalo played in the evolution of the Sioux culture."
People are encouraged to come out to the site and learn.
Tour groups have come from all over the country. Scheller, who has been taking care of the buffalo since 2005, particularly enjoys filling the back of his truck with school children and driving out into the pasture so they can get close to the buffalo without disturbing the animals.
"Buffalo are very easy to keep if you keep them fed well," Scheller said. "They lay down a lot." There's no chasing or herding of the animals, which thrive in a low-stress environment but "just get crazy" if agitated.
"They're wild animals - not to be trusted," he said. Cows can be especially dangerous when they are calving or their young are nearby. Visitors may have an opportunity to reach through the truck's slats and feed the bison ears of dried corn, but there's no walking up and patting the big animals.
Four pastures are available to the herd. All are connected to two holding pens by the barn, where there is an automatic water tank. To rotate pastures, workers simply open one gate and close others.
Currently there are two bulls; one is standby in case the primary bull gets injured. Breeding begins in late August, and the first calves will arrive from mid-April to May. Occasionally some come in June or later. Calves weigh about 50 pounds when born, while cows average 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. The old bull weighs over a ton.
Breeding is an important part of the Buffalo Project because it assures an ongoing supply of meat, officials noted. A butcher from Pierce County comes to the site every two months to slaughter four buffalo, usually at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. About 50 percent of the weight is recovered as meat.
Through the project, the buffalo continues to fill needs just as it did for the ancestors of today's tribal members.
Not only do they eat the meat, but tribal members also can sign up to get a mounted buffalo head, a robe or possibly a skull. They pay the associated costs.
"We have enough prairie restored land to probably support a herd of 200," Scheller said.
Tribal volunteer Floyd Wells - he and Scheller are veterans as well - drives tractor and cuts hay, and checks on the herd when Scheller isn't around.
All the manure is hauled to a compost pile, which is applied to the pastures. Workers put up around 800 round bales of hay for the project each year.
Prairie Island's Buffalo Project is affiliated with the Inter Tribal Bison Co-op, which helps tribes with herd development and expansion. Tribal members and volunteer Freeman Johnson, another veteran, have been instrumental in developing the herd through involvement with the ITBC.
"The tribe is very enthusiastic about the project and proud of its evolution and the superior condition of the herd," Ray said.
Any group, including school classes, that would like to come see the herd can make arrangements by calling Larry Sheller at (651) 775-2256 or Marv Ray, tribal administrator, at (651) 385-4121. For more information, go online to www.prairieisland.org and click on "buffalo."
Visitors have found the buffalo to be majestic and intriguing, Ray said. "The project gives the people an opportunity to see buffalo in their natural setting - the way they live."