Last week, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced $25 million in federal spending for buffalo conservation, which will include the transfer of more herds from federal to tribal lands. The announcement follows a multi-year trend of reintroducing the iconic animal to Native American homelands, which has mainly happened through agreements between federal agencies and tribes. While this shift has benefited tribal entities and revitalized cultural connections, the opportunities for privately-owned buffalo ranches have not been as abundant.
However, Virgil Two Eagle (Oglala Sioux) of Black Feather Buffalo Ranch on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has tapped into local resources to help him diversify and grow his herd of 73 buffalo. Two Eagle has been buffalo ranching since the 1990’s when his uncle, John Black Feather, originally established the ranch. Since his uncle passed away in 2017, Two Eagle has been continuing the legacy.
“It’s challenging work, but I love what I do. These buffalo, they look clumsy and slow. I clocked a young bull at 40 miles per hour, though. They can stop and turn as fast as any cutting horse out there,” says Two Eagle.
Sitting about 10 miles outside the town of Pine Ridge, the Black Feather Buffalo Ranch spans over 3,000 acres and requires a significant amount of upkeep for equipment, corrals, and fences – especially considering the sheer force of the herd.
“We have over six miles of fence. Over the years, we’ve used different materials. But now, we’re in the process of putting in solar panels with electric fence,” Two Eagle points out.
Typical of agricultural operations, the majority of the ranch’s income comes in just once per year when stock is sold. Fluctuations in market sales or commodity prices, which happen regularly, can greatly impact an agricultural operation’s cash flow. Two Eagle says it hasn’t always been easy to secure capital to sustain a thriving operation. However, that all began to change last year when he heard Lakota Funds on the local radio station.
Lakota Funds, established in 1986, is a nonprofit that pairs capital with training and customized assistance to small businesses on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and surrounding areas. They manage a $7.6 million loan portfolio, about half of which is in agricultural loans.
“I heard about the services they provide, and I called the number,” says Two Eagle. It wasn’t long before he secured a loan to purchase two bulls and fencing supplies. Within a year, he had paid off the initial loan and secured another for an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to help get around the ranch. This source of capital has helped with the ranch’s ongoing expenses and improved the efficiency of the overall operation.
Introducing two new bulls has been an important step in diversifying the genetics of Two Eagle’s herd. He says one of the bulls has turned out to be his best breeder. Last year, Two Eagle also received a grant of 11 buffalo from Tanka Fund, a nonprofit focused on returning buffalo to Indian Country. With the help of these local nonprofit organizations, Two Eagle is not just maintaining his operation, but is also focusing on improving efficiencies, as well as growing and advancing the quality his herd.
But he says there are still a few things missing that would bring his operation full circle. Two Eagle sells most of his stock to a larger producer, who then resells the buffalo through supply chains that eventually make it to retailers. He feels having a local processor and retailer would help the local economy. He would like to see local buffalo meat going to local families as well as visitors from out of the area.
“There aren’t too many of us buffalo ranchers out there, but there is a desire to capture more of the market as Native producers. I think a lot of people would rather come to the rez for locally harvested meat and for the cultural connection,” says Two Eagle.
Two Eagle would also like to sustain the buffalo culture by passing on skills and best practices to the younger generation. “I would like to hire young people to teach them about ranching and taking care of animals, giving them some responsibility,” he explains.
For now, he’ll continue to do his part to revitalize environmental, economic, and cultural systems around the buffalo.