Badlands bison plan driven by tourism

Jun 28, 2013

South Dakota Stockgrowers Association (SDSGA) members fear a plan to expand bison grazing at Badlands National Park leaves questions about management, expense, property damage and disease control unanswered.

Ranchers expressed their concerns about the buffalo range plan at scoping meetings convened by Badlands National Park officials June 4 at Wall, SD, and June 12 at Rapid City.

The park officials say expanding bison grazing in the park will make them more visible to tourists, but livestock producers say existing bison are poorly managed, often damaging fences and migrating onto private property.

Badlands National Park south east of Rapid City encompasses 243,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires combined with the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the U.S.

Silvia Christen, executive director of SDSGA, said the scoping meetings were announced in a newspaper with few details.

“It’s kind of an odd proposal,” she said, adding no tangible plan or definitive proposal seems to be in place. “They invited the public to give comment on a plan they do not have.”

SDSGA has 1,400 members statewide. Founded in 1893, it is one of South Dakota’s oldest organizations. Its mission is to promote and protect the state’s livestock Park officials were told by a Texas A&M geneticist that they need to run a sustained herd of 1,000 bison to maintain genetic purity, Christen told Western Livestock Journal, saying tourism seems to be the main reason for the grazing expansion.

“There are a huge number of considerations,” she said, expressing management concerns. “Currently, they say they are trying to run 600 head. In reality, they’re running 1,000 already. They’re not able to get rid of them.”

Christen asked if park officials try to cull the bison herd, where would the extra animals go?

The bison are on the Sage Creek unit of the park, wandering and grazing on about 64,000 acres, or less than half of the 144,000-acre north unit, which includes Badlands formations and grass lands.

New areas would include a popular scenic route through some of the most dramatic Badlands areas. To see the bison now, visitors must drive a gravel road through the Sage Creek unit.

Many ranchers wonder where the deficit-wracked federal government would get the money to build the expensive fence needed to expand bison grazing in the park and provide water sources. They also warn that much of the terrain is not accessible to fencing.

“They seem very interested in the possibility of acquiring other land via land trades with private owners or federal agencies,” Christen said of the park officials.

“All of that gives us a lot of concern because we don’t know how the process works. …They have absolutely no idea of the cost and the reality of fencing. Our producers who ranch in those areas say you cannot build fences in those areas.”

A big concern for cattle ranchers are rumors that park officials want to open grazing areas to private herds of buffalo, Christen said. If they are going to do so, the ranchers wonder, why not issue grazing permits for cattle?

Park officials have countered that cattle are not native prairie species, which is their mission to oversee.

Ranchers also are worried that park officials want to open valuable grazing permits to friends of theirs in the Nature Conservancy, which has purchased a lot of land in the vicinity.

Ranchers must pay for their grazing permits, and there is economic value in the beef cattle they are raising, Christen said, questioning the actual process of permitting and allowing grazing in the park.

“It makes for a lot of kind of cozy stuff going on. It makes us have questions. These friends are running bison next to the park,” Christen said. “People are not sure they have a very strong history in terms of productive management.”

Another big worry is the threat of brucellosis spreading from bison to cattle. There are concerns about the procedures used at Badlands National Park for testing and vaccinating the beasts, Christen noted. “They’ve never considered the disease risk.”

Grady Crew, who runs 450 cows near the park’s main northeast entrance, said he has a “unique bias” in regard to expanding bison grazing. He enjoys the tourism, but also shares rancher concerns about adequate fencing, water availability, disease control and giving away extra buffalo to Indian tribes rather than selling them to generate revenue.

“From a rancher’s perspective, it kind of made me upset that they had it all planned out, but there was no water plan. That was a second thought later on,” Crew said.

Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent