In 2012, Mr. Speak Thunder drove a livestock trailer in a convoy from Yellowstone National Park that returned genetically pure bison to tribal land in northeastern Montana for the first time in 140 years. Mr. Speak Thunder, 32, is one of a growing number of younger Native Americans who are helping to restore native animals to tribal lands across the Northern Great Plains, in the Dakotas, Montana and parts of Nebraska.
They include people like Robert Goodman, an Oglala Lakota Sioux, who moved away from his reservation in the early 2000s and earned a degree in wildlife management. When he graduated in 2005, he could not find work in that field, so he took a job in construction in Rapid City, S.D.
Then he learned of work that would bring him home. The parks and recreation department of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where he grew up, needed someone to help restore rare native wildlife — including the swift fox, a small, tan wild dog revered for its cleverness. In 2009, Mr. Goodman held a six-pound transplant by its scruff and showed it by firelight to a circle of tribal elders, members of a reconvened warrior society that had disbanded when the foxes disappeared.
“I have never been that traditional,” said Mr. Goodman, 33, who released that fox and others into the wild after the ceremony. “But that was spiritual to me.”
For a native wildlife reintroduction to work, native habitat is needed, biologists say. On the Northern Great Plains, that habitat is the original grass, never sliced by a farmer’s plow.
Unplowed temperate grassland is the least protected large ecosystem on earth, according to the American Prairie Reserve, a nonprofit organization dedicated to grassland preservation. Tribes on America’s Northern Plains, however, have left their grasslands largely intact.
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