April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

WITH THE SNOW FINALLY GONE to mud on the plains of northwest South Dakota, Fred DuBray jumps into his truck to take stock of the Cheyenne River tribe’s buffalo herd. It was a brutal winter even by South Dakota standards, with heavy snowfalls and temperatures plunging to-80°F, and the toll on the area is evident. Rumbling over the reservation’s 3 million acres, DuBray passes toppled fences, gravel roads turned into quicksand-like ditches and the corpses of several cows that had died after being marooned behind 30-foot snowdrifts.

But this March day, DuBray, 46, founding president of the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITCB, a consortium of 41 Native American tribes hoping to restore the buffalo to reservation lands) and current head of the Cheyenne River Reservation’s buffalo project, is a happy man. Except for two buffalo, the entire herd of 800 has survived, protected by their thick coats, natural resilience and ability to travel.

“Buffalo thrive no matter the weather,” says DuBray, a Lakota. Slowing to gaze at beasts that his ancestors have worshiped for over 1,000 years, he says, “Buffalo are meant to live on the plains.”

About 700 miles west, though, on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, equally harsh conditions have resulted in a similar scenario, but one with a far grimmer ending. With little land on which to forage, the park’s herd of about 3,500 buffalo has been migrating downrange in search of food. Yet the buffalo that stray across park boundaries into Montana have often been greeted with a government-sanctioned bullet to the brain. The problem is brucellosis, a bacteria carried by some of the buffalo that can cause miscarriages in livestock. Since October, roughly 1,080 buffalo have been shot or taken to slaughterhouses by Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) employees. The government’s response, says Yellowstone superintendent Michael V. Finley, has “virtually decimated the northern bison herd in Yellowstone.”

DuBray, for one, is sickened by the slaughter. “It is an American tragedy to see these wonderful animals killed. If they’re not wanted in Montana, send them to us in South Dakota.”

All parties claim they would like to see an end to the killings. But, says Andrew Malcolm, a spokesman for Montana’s DOL, for now it’s a necessary evil. With the threat that the Department of Agriculture could revoke Montana’s brucellosis-free status—crucial for its billion-dollar livestock industry—buffalo and cattle, Malcolm says, cannot be allowed to mingle.

Malcolm has his supporters—even among Native Americans, some of whom share his view that Yellowstone’s bison population is not being controlled properly by the Federal government. Artist Gloria Wells-Norlin is a 42-year-old mother of three and a member of the Little Shell Chippewa tribe. She leads a crew that performs traditional ceremonies over the slaughtered buffalo, then distributes the hide and meat (humans, experts say, don’t get sick from eating contaminated meat as long as it is cooked), primarily to the needy. Wells-Norlin insists Montana is making the best of a bad situation. “There isn’t an Indian around who doesn’t want to see the bison come back to the reservations alive,” she says. “But is it humane to see the animals starve? We’ve got hungry people in Montana.”

But while the aggressive hunting and rough weather have whittled the park’s herd to less than half what it was in the fall, some say the carnage is unnecessary. “There has never been a single documented case of bison transmitting brucellosis to cattle under range conditions,” says Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. The slaughter, he adds, is “an overreaction,” and he has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study. The results will be ready in October.

To DuBray, the killings are sacrilegious and galling, especially when the ITCB has offered to send people to Yellowstone to round up and feed straying animals and quarantine the sick ones. Last month, DuBray traveled to Washington to lobby South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson on a program to relocate excess Yellowstone buffalo onto tribal land, where they would be raised and hunted according to Native American tradition.

The land is there and waiting.’ In January 1996, at DuBray’s behest, Minnesota philanthropist Jennifer Easton gave $1.3 million to the Cheyenne River tribe to buy 6,000 acres of privately owned reservation land for a buffalo refuge. “Fred is a totally dedicated man,” she says. “We share a dream that buffalo will again roam the plains.” But not Yellowstone’s buffalo, though, until the Department of Agriculture lifts its prohibition of interstate shipment of potentially diseased animals.

The stalemate doesn’t surprise DuBray. “My grandmother used to say that when the white man destroyed the buffalo, they were trying to destroy us.” It was his grandmother, in fact, who inspired DuBray to come to the aid of the buffalo. Born in 1950, the fifth of the six children of Louis DuBray and Elsie Rivers, both of mixed white and Lakota descent, DuBray had a tough early life on the Cheyenne River Reservation. His mother died in a car accident when he was 3. Three years later his father, an alcoholic, died of exposure. “Other people talk about things they did when they were 4 or 5,” he says, “but I can’t think of a thing. Maybe it was too painful.”

Life improved when DuBray moved in with his maternal grandparents, Anthony and Laura Rivers. “She was the person who mattered most to me,” he says of his grandmother, who died in 1995 at the age of 102. “She was real proud that I was trying to bring the buffalo back.”

After graduating from the Eagle Butte Boarding School in 1968, DuBray spent three years in the Marines, including a 13-month hitch in Vietnam. For the next 14 years he rode the rodeo circuit and worked as a ranch hand. Then in 1985, determined to make a difference on his reservation, he enrolled at Black Hills State University. Graduating summa cum laude in ’89 with an emphasis in communications, social science, political science and Indian studies, he returned to the reservation and took a job working on buffalo restoration. In 1991, DuBray founded the ITCB and served as its president for five years. During that time tribal herds, which had numbered 1,500, grew to include more than 8,000 animals. Dubray, a divorcé now engaged to the ITCB’s director of development, Michelle Fredericks, 30, also inspired tribe members’ return to their spiritual roots. Says Native American Sally Williams: “Fred gives young people hope, a sense of tradition and a sense of the future.”

As DuBray sees it, that future, like the Indians’ past, depends on the survival of the buffalo. “The buffalo was everything to us,” he says, “a spiritual link to the land, a model for our tribal social structure, the basis of our diet and the essence of our economic system. Without the buffalo we couldn’t exist. It is now our responsibility to take care of them.”

PETER AMES CARLIN

MARGARET NELSON on the Cheyenne River Reservation, VICKIE BANE in Yellowstone and SANDRA McELWAINE in Washington

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