The Buffalo Nation : The Oglala Sioux want to rebuild the buffalo-based economy of their past. But first they must deal with an old, old adversary: the U.S. government.

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Alex White Plume watched, frustrated, as 20 buffalo trotted south up Paradise Valley, back into the safe haven of Yellowstone National Park. A hundred buffalo or more grazed farther inside the park, near the border but unwilling to cross it.

No buffalo would be shot on this bitterly cold morning last week. The Oglala Sioux tribe would receive no more meat.

"I think morale here is running low," White Plume said, as the sun broke over the Bear Tooth Mountains, painting the snowcapped 11,000-foot summit of Electric Peak with a pink glow. The buffalo were black specks now, moving slowly over brown foothills west of the Yellowstone River. White Plume's band of 46 Oglala shivered on a gravel ranch road, stamping their feet and drinking coffee in the frosty dawn, some of them watching the buffalo through binoculars.

"This will be hard on us," said the soft-spoken White Plume.

White Plume's ancestors hunted these valleys for millennia, but today's hunt and the future of the tribe's buffalo supply depend on decisions made by a species even harder to predict than the buffalo--Washington bureaucrats.

The Indians' desire to rebuild the buffalo-based economy of their heritage must be balanced against cattle ranchers' concerns about a contagious disease. Only this week does there seem to be progress toward a solution.

Bison have trekked these hills since the late Pleistocene era. The river here tumbles out of Yellowstone's high country, then follows the broad Paradise Valley for 60 miles, north to Livingston, Mont., and beyond. It is one of four major valleys that drain this side of Yellowstone National Park. Once they were lush byways for buffalo, elk and other game.

But today, the Yellowstone River is more likely to attract fly-fishermen. The valley, still spectacular, has been subdivided into ranches, resorts and homes for movie stars.

This was the Oglala's first hunt here in more than 110 years. When 60 million buffalo roamed North America, the Oglala and other Lakota Sioux tribes based their entire culture on the natural movement of the herds. The tribes still use buffalo meat for religious ceremonies, powwows and other gatherings. Buffalo skulls serve as altars. Buffalo hearts are buried beneath the tall poles erected for the Sun Dance, the Lakota's most sacred ceremony.

White Plume, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Parks & Recreation Authority, is working to rebuild the tribe's herd with excess animals from Yellowstone. In 1900 there were fewer than 1,000 of the animals left in North America; today there are 200,000, and herds are growing.

At 44, White Plume is old enough to be experienced in traditional ways. He speaks fluent Lakota and teaches the culture. Yet he is young enough to navigate the hazards of a modern buffalo hunter--bureaucracies, tight budgets and broken-down trucks.

The Oglala now live on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, 500 miles to the east, so the trip here was a financial gamble. The sign on their motel says "Elk stay free," but White Plume's band was spending $1,000 a day on food and lodging. The financially strapped Oglala could ill afford to come home empty-handed. "We just started our casino, so we don't have any money yet," White Plume joked.

The expedition had not been a total loss.

The day before, Montana game wardens and Yellowstone park rangers shot 41 buffalo along this road near Corwin Springs, just north of the park. The Oglala and a smaller group from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe had ritually butchered the animals, skinning and quartering the carcasses in less than two hours. They lined up the severed heads, facing east, in the traditional way, and spread the meat out on blue tarps in snowbanks to freeze solid during the 20-below night.

The Oglala were grateful for the animals.

"The idea of bringing a buffalo back to your own extended family is very, very powerful," Milo Yellow Hair said.

Still, the hunt was a disappointment. White Plume had hoped to butcher 100 animals; he would go home with just 30.

And his disappointment in the hunt reflected a larger frustration among Indians over management of the Yellowstone buffalo.

The Indians want to bring the buffalo home alive.

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Fred DuBray, of Eagle Butte, S.D., is a Cheyenne River Sioux and chairman of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, which represents 34 tribes in 14 states. He says bureaucrats have ignored for 2 1/2 years an Indian plan to restock tribal herds with excess Yellowstone buffalo. The plan could help tribes economically and eliminate the need for buffalo kills on Yellowstone's borders.

This week brought a glimmer of new hope for the Indian plan.

National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy and Assistant Agriculture Secretary Patricia Jensen met with other agency heads Tuesday in Washington. They agreed to develop a comprehensive plan for buffalo in Yellowstone, and for the first time officially acknowledged the bison cooperative's idea as a possible solution. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) also has been working with USDA representatives on a plan.

White Plume and his fellow Oglala are not celebrating yet. They have a 140-year history of broken promises from Washington, particularly regarding buffalo, and there is no guarantee the Indians will get what they want. But they have been making powerful allies.

During the recent buffalo kill, Yellowstone Superintendent Michael Finley met with White Plume and Mark Heckert, executive director of the cooperative.

"We'd love to be part of their solution," said Finley, who has been at Yellowstone just two months. He said the Park Service might even help pay for the plan, because "What we're doing now costs money," he said.

The plan will have to be negotiated with the sensitivity normally reserved for arms treaties because the Yellowstone buffalo problem is complicated--ecologically, bureaucratically and politically.

First, there's the question of killing Yellowstone buffalo.

The Oglala and other tribes were invited here to slaughter buffalo because of a bacterial disease called brucellosis. About half the buffalo in Yellowstone have been exposed to it. Montana game wardens and Yellowstone rangers shoot buffalo that wander out of the park because brucellosis can infect cattle, causing cows to abort fetuses.

Although there has never been a documented case of wild buffalo infecting cattle, Montana ranchers are understandably worried about the disease. In humans, brucellosis can cause undulant fever, which is difficult to diagnose and hard to treat if not caught early.

Even healthy buffalo can be dangerous. They are wild, unpredictable, 2,000-pound animals that can run 30 miles an hour. Yellowstone visitors who don't believe that are regularly gored.

In the past, migrations out of the park weren't a problem. Winter snows trapped buffalo in high-country valleys. Some starved, providing carcasses for predators. The population was controlled.

Increased winter tourism in Yellowstone has changed that. Plowed roads and snowmobile trails made it easier for buffalo to migrate north and west to winter ranges outside Yellowstone. In the 1980s the herd began to grow.

Today there are 4,300 buffalo in the park. Finley says no one has proved what the park capacity is, but estimates from a recent study suggest the park can support from 1,200 to 2,200 buffalo. And Yellowstone isn't fenced. When buffalo run out of food they head north and west--into ranch country.

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Montana's first solution was a public hunt. It was discontinued after a public outcry during the winter of 1988-1989, when 600 animals were shot, many on national television.

Today, Montana game wardens and Yellowstone park rangers do the shooting. Indian tribes, like the Oglala this month, get to butcher them for the meat under an agreement with the InterTribal Bison Cooperative. More than 100 buffalo have been shot this year. Only five were shot last winter, but 79 were killed the year before and 271 the year before that.

Indians don't like that solution.

"If they're going to kill them anyway, we'll take the meat. But our spiritual connection with the buffalo is our No. 1 priority," says DuBray. "We don't want to see them killed just because they crossed some imaginary line."

DuBray helped found the bison cooperative in 1991. It developed the plan to capture and quarantine Yellowstone buffalo that leave the park. Sick animals would be slaughtered. Healthy ones would go to tribes.

What could be better? The plan would relieve pressure on the Yellowstone herd, protect Montana ranches and save healthy buffalo.

"We saw this as an opportunity to solve a complicated problem in a relatively simple manner," Heckert said.

The tribes would benefit, too, by raising an animal born to roam the Great Plains. "You don't have to bend the environment to fit this species," Heckert said.

And White Plume says restoring the buffalo herds means more to Indians than most non-Indians understand--even those who saw "Dances With Wolves."

"I liked that movie because all my relatives were in it," White Plume jokes.

His brother, Percy White Plume, played a character called Big Warrior, who argued with Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner's character) over a cavalry hat. Percy White Plume also made the trip to Yellowstone. He jokes, gently, about how the raw buffalo liver Costner ate was really made of cranberry jelly and how he appeared to pull the liver out of the wrong end of the buffalo.

But Percy White Plume also said Indian extras on "Dances" cried real tears during the filming of a scene in which slaughtered buffalo were left to rot on the prairie.

When the Fund for Animals got wind of the latest buffalo kill, the animal-rights group faxed the Oglala Sioux tribe: "Stop the slaughter."

Said Alex White Plume, "They call it a slaughter, but to us it's not a slaughter. You have to look at the world a whole different way. The buffalo is our leader, our survival, our future."

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Buffalo herds might not be as lucrative as Indian casinos, but for White Plume, DuBray and others, buffalo are infinitely more satisfying than slot machines.

So what's the problem?

Heckert says it lies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an agency called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. According to current APHIS regulations, any state that has been certified free of brucellosis would lose that status by accepting a quarantine facility. No state would do that. And states that have brucellosis are working to eradicate it, so they too would be unlikely to risk having a quarantine facility--unless APHIS changed its regulations.

"We could have had a live-removal operation in place a year ago," Heckert said. "But we would need the enthusiastic cooperation of APHIS, and we've had a very difficult time getting anything out of APHIS. They are regulators, not negotiators."

Michael J. Gilsdorf, national brucellosis epidemiologist with APHIS in Hyattsville, Md., denies the agency has dragged its feet. "They're not waiting on APHIS," Gilsdorf said Monday. He and his staff have been working with Burns, the Montana senator, on a plan that could clear the way for the Indians' plan to quarantine a herd.

On Tuesday, the National Park Service, APHIS, the U.S. Forest Service and the Agriculture Department agreed to consider an experimental program, under APHIS supervision, to let tribes operate quarantine herds on reservations.

But the Indian plan is not home free.

Gilsdorf said the cattle industry and state officials will have to approve any change in regulations. They have legitimate concerns, and so does Gilsdorf. He caught undulant fever from infected animals in 1978. He recovered from the spiking fevers and cold sweats because he recognized the disease early and treated it aggressively. But he knows veterinarians who have recurring cases.

Meat from animals with brucellosis can be eaten safely, if it is cooked, Gilsdorf said. But don't eat raw buffalo liver, either--unless it's really cranberry jelly.

Heckert believes the concerns of ranchers could be met by bonding or insuring the quarantined herd against any outbreak.

The meeting in Washington Tuesday also produced a consensus to rid Yellowstone of brucellosis, a plan Gilsdorf advocates.

Finally, there is no guarantee Indian tribes will get the buffalo. An interagency team drafting an environmental impact statement suggested the buffalo could be sold or given to other groups. Heckert hopes any plan will give Indians priority because of their unique relationship to "tatanka oyate," the buffalo nation.

Sam Tall, 21, an Oglala who is studying the traditional ways, also made the trip to Yellowstone.

"To me, the buffalo represents everything about where my people came from and where they are going," he said. "It's an honor to be here."

After the buffalo turned back into the park, the Oglala and a smaller group from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe gathered in a circle. Tall sang a song in the Lakota language. He sang about dancing with a pipe on the red earth until his feet turned red, but the real meaning is not readily translatable.

"I feel good today," Tall said later. "Today we achieved a good thing."

Alex White Plume hopes bureaucrats in Washington have done the same.

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