PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Rangeland outside of Badlands National Park has become contested territory.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe and National Park Service are working on a plan outlined nearly 40 years ago to turn the current park's South Unit and surrounding property into the first tribal national park and introduce a herd of buffalo.
Opponents of the new park, including some tribal members and ranchers who've leased and used the land for decades, distrust land transfers and federal involvement. But supporters argue that the park will give the tribe the opportunity to re-introduce buffalo and pursue other projects.
Most of the land in question belongs to the tribe, which is helping ranchers find new sites for their animals. A tribal judge will consider a petition in July to keep the tribal council from canceling grazing leases.
And with ongoing public input sessions — two are scheduled for Friday —organizers say there is still time for adjustments and compromise.
"It's not something that's going to happen overnight," said Angela Sam, assistant to Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer. "It's not something that's going to happen easily." She said the tribe could choose to halt the plan's progress, use the existing park boundaries or expand them into the rangeland.
A feasibility study indicated that 133,000 acres in the South Unit would not be enough to maintain a bison herd, Sam said.
Fewer than a dozen properties would be affected, and most of those are rented, she said. Ranchers leasing the property might not have realized the prescribed use of the land might change, even though the plan for the park with buffalo dates back to 1976, she said.
"We're not kicking any individual landowner off," Sam said, adding that landowners can fence off their property or lease it to the park.
Badlands National Park Superintendent Eric Brunnemann said the federal government is not allowed to acquire tribal land, but can use it if granted permission by the tribe.
"The tribe and the park service came to consensus," he said. "It was widely viewed as a great success."
The park service already co-manages the Badlands' South Unit with the tribe, so the only change would be the designation as a tribal national park and the introduction of the animals, he said.
Larry Eagle Bull, who is new to the tribal council, said the plan should be considered as a referendum. He said tribal members are justifiably suspicious when they lose their land, considering the history of failed treaties with the federal government.
"I just never know with the government," Eagle Bull said. "People don't trust them yet."
Chancey Wilson ranches on 30,000 acres in the contested area; some of it he leases, some of it he owns. He's worried about ranchers losing their ability to occupy the land and the tribe losing its say over the land.
"It's a land grab by the federal government," he said. "There won't be no tribal input in there after a while."