Program aims to boost reservation beef production

By Dave Kolpack
Fargo, North Dakota (AP) May 2011

A group of scientists trying to help members of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation restore the land and raise cattle has received a $5 million boost from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture grant announced last week comes nearly three years after researchers from NDSU and the reservation’s Sitting Bull College started working on plans to improve ranching techniques for tribal members.

The Standing Rock reservation straddles the North and South Dakota border and covers about 2.2 million acres. Over time, bad management practices have resulted in degraded range land, low grass production and large prairie dog towns.

“There are a lot of reasons why an intervention here makes sense,” Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told The Associated Press.

Project leader Robert Maddock, a North Dakota State University researcher, said the goal is to increase beef production and ultimately develop a food processing center on the reservation, which is home to about 9,000 people.

"The successful completion would be that we determined the best ways to improve the range land so we can raise more cattle," Maddock said.

The experiment will take place on a 4,500-acre tract of land near McLaughlin, S.D. Researchers will first look at improving the range land and then operate with a test herd.

Maddock, 38, has been at NDSU for five years. He will be joined on the project by other researchers from NDSU, South Dakota State University and Sitting Bull College.

One of the project organizers, longtime NDSU researcher Timothy Faller, said the program aims to get high school students involved in food production and help them get into college.

"If there’s a chance of a big one winning, we’ve got the right people on this," said Faller, 65, who is semi-retired and will serve as an adviser on the project. "Whether we succeed or not remains to be seen. We could fail, too. So many have."

The grant was one of seven announced as part of a USDA initiative to boost local food systems and reduce hunger.

Merrigan said the project is a "big thing" because tribal members are interested in developing food sources that are compatible with American Indian traditions.  Food sovereignty is an important issue for the tribes and the Obama administration, she said.

"I’ve been in meetings with the president and I have been in meetings with other cabinet officials," she said. "Tribal affairs is a high priority for this administration."