The livestock died by the thousands, the drifts reached 25 feet, and the wind chill whipped at 95 degrees below zero. The Dakotas have been our home for centuries, but nothing could have prepared us for the brutality of this past winter. There was no wondrous splendor of falling snow this year in North and South Dakota, none at all. Rather there was pure and simple economic disaster. Nature can be cruel - and it was this year for the Cheyenne River Sioux, the Standing Rock Sioux, and the Three Affiliated Tribes.
Blizzards trapped most of our tribal members in their homes for days, cutting them off from grocery stores and doctors' offices. Blocked roads prevented propane from being delivered to heat their homes. In the face of such adversity, the tribes quickly established emergency rescue centers to prevent fatalities; deliver food, fuel, and medicine; and to coordinate snow removal. The centers and their volunteers did a fine job. We survived the storms with no fatalities - human fatalities, that is.
The rescue center and the volunteers, however, could not save the livestock. There was little to nothing that could be done for the animals as they froze to death out on the prairies-turned-tundra. We lost approximately 9,000 head of cattle to the storms. Having lost their indispensable assets, our farmers are now devastated and desperate. We have traveled to Capitol Hill to make a historic appeal for federal disaster relief to help get our members back on their feet.
Our appeal is twofold. We are asking to recoup the monies spent on emergency rescue efforts. No one could have predicted the record-breaking snows, and thus a set-aside fund to meet the extent of this winter's expenses was never established. Left no other option, we used our regular budgets earmarked for governmental functions such as health clinic costs, educational programs, and infrastructure maintenance to stave off nature's onslaught. If we do not recoup this money, our governments will not be able to provide our members with basic human services. The second part of our appeal is an innovative plan that will prevent such a disaster from ever happening again, regardless of the winter. Our plan is to have a payment-in-kind program that will replenish our lost cattle with bison.
Bison are much sturdier than beef cattle. They are familiar with the Northern Plains and can withstand harsh winters. They are a link to our past and can be our new link to a future of agricultural economic prosperity. Bison operations would rarely be wiped out by bad weather. Further, as bison ranchers, our members could again base their livelihoods on tradition and custom. Our tribes thrived when bison freely roamed the plains. And, though times have changed, the bison can again sustain us.
It seems that our bison plan comes at an opportune time. It is no secret that the Yellowstone bison herd is being killed by the hundreds. People fear that these bison may be infected with a disease called brucellosis which is contagious to cattle. Brucellosis is actually a disease originating in dairy cows that some claim the bison contracted. Truth be known, though, there is no evidence that these bison are sick. Researchers, including the state veterinarian, have found no indications that these bison are infected. In light of this, the ongoing sanctioned bison slaughter is not only sad but atrocious. There is no proof of disease in these innocent animals. Rather, the slaughter was called to quell the fears of the large constituency of cattle ranchers who fear that the disease will infiltrate their stables.
Our tribal members' farms have been wiped out by this winter's storms. They are in dire straits with no secure incomes and only farm foreclosures on the horizon. The payment-in-kind program could literally save dozens of farms and prevent entire families from experiencing economic ruin. Bison are the answer, and they are being killed by the hundreds for no good reason.
I propose that if the Department of the Interior and the Montana governor want to get rid of these bison so badly, they should send them to us instead of slaughtering them. We will gladly take them in, welcome them onto our lands, and care for them appropriately.
These persecuted bison are our lifeline that can save us from impending economic doom. They sustained us once before, and I am confident the tribes and the bison can solve each other's problems. The bison will ensure that never again will winter take such a toll on our people, and we will ensure that never again will people take such a severe toll on our bison.
* Gregg Bourland is chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.