How bringing buffalo back can combat climate change, heal indigenous people in Texas

Indigenous-run nonprofit in Waelder, Texas, uses buffalo to reform native grasslands

WAEDLER, Texas – A group just outside of San Antonio is working to bring buffalo back to Texas, decades after the near extinction of the animals by the 1900s hurt the livelihoods of indigenous people and the environment.

The mission of the nonprofit Texas Tribal Buffalo Project is to heal Texas’ indigenous people and the environment by restoring the buffalo population.

“Once again, the buffalo are thriving here in Texas,” said Lucille Contreras, director and founder of the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project. “We are in the Southern Coastal Plains.”

Seeing buffalo graze the land while driving through Waelder, Texas — located off of Interstate 10, just a little over an hour east of San Antonio — will definitely make you do a double take.

There are over 20 buffalo on 77 acres of the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project.

The nonprofit is entirely run by indigenous women, from funding and logistics to caring for the buffalo.

Contreras said the return of these animals is tied to a healing necessary for her people’s existence.

“At one point, the buffalo were everything to Texas Indigenous people,” Contreras said. “They were our source of spirituality, our source of nutrition and food.”

The buffalo, also known as the American bison, were killed by millions in the 1800s.

“They were killed for sport,” Contreras said. “They were killed for their hides, and they were killed as a way to exterminate the Native Americans.”

In the early 1900s, the buffalo were almost extinct, with less than a thousand living. Contreras said it wasn’t just the animals fighting to survive.

Indigenous groups in South Texas — such as the Lipan-Apache, Payaya, and Karankawa — depended on the buffalo.

“We’ve had to hide in plain sight, as forced assimilation, as a way to survive,” Contreras said. “Just as the buffalo had to survive.”

The mass destruction of the buffalo also led to another loss.

“It was devastation also to the environment and to the land and to the climate,” Contreras said.

That’s why nonprofits in the U.S. are working to restore the buffalo population, such as the global nonprofit The Nature Conservancy.

“The Nature Conservancy manages 6,000 bison across 1,300 acres at 12 preserves,” said Suzanne Scott, Texas State Director of The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy has preserves in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri. Scott said they realized it made sense to partner with groups like the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project.

“In 2021, we transferred five buffalo to the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project in Waelder, Texas,” Scott said. “They were transferred from the Medano Zapata Ranch in Colorado.”

The partnerships heal Texas’ indigenous people and the state’s native grasslands.

“The native grasslands are the most threatened ecosystem in the United States and really throughout the world,” Scott said. “That’s mainly because of fragmentation, growth, and development. Many of our native grasslands have just been taken over by growing cities, agricultural lands.”

We need our grasslands and buffalo together because they help combat climate change by promoting biodiversity and keeping carbon in the ground.

Native grasslands help sustain biodiversity.

“These native plants, what you see on the surface, really provide habitat for birds and pollinators and also microorganisms and other species that are very critical to the health of our soils, to the health of our food that provides for us and other species,” Scott said.

Carbon sequestration happens when carbon is kept in the ground rather than released into the atmosphere.

“One-way carbon is kept in the ground is by creating healthy soil and healthy grasses and healthy forbs that retain,” Contreras said.

Buffalo helps do this in several ways.

One is to keep invasive species or brush, like mesquite trees, from taking over and promote the prairies’ life by spreading seed when it gets stuck to their fur.

“The way they walk on the ground, they aerate the soil and reawaken the seed bank,” Contreras said.

How the buffalo graze also helps the grasslands.

“Beef cattle, they are not native to here,” Contreras said. “They eat the grass so much that they pull it all the way up, and it doesn’t replenish itself, versus Buffalo that move. They graze rotationally, naturally, and they only eat the tops of the grass, so the grass continues to grow.”

But what about methane?

Cattle are known for releasing tons of methane through manure, contributing to global warming. Contreras said buffalo manure better decomposes than cattle manure.

Buffalo dung also attracts more native insects, which turn it into a natural fertilizer for our native grasslands, releasing less methane.

“The buffalo dung becomes an entire world microcosm in itself,” Contreras said.

Contreras said this is just the beginning.

Long-term, they hope for thousands of acres where thousands of buffalo can roam free, but more importantly, for other ranchers to be able to replicate their methods for a more sustainable future in agriculture.

“If we know who we are and what we came from, we are able to go forward with purpose, with health and with unity — just as the buffalo,” Contreras said.

About the Author

Sarah Acosta is a weekend Good Morning San Antonio anchor and a general assignments reporter at KSAT12. She joined the news team in April 2018 as a morning reporter for GMSA and is a native South Texan.

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