Bison co-op
helping Native Americans
develop production,
marketing strategy

By Dan Schofer

Editor’s note: Schofer was a co-op
development specialist with USDA Rural
Development, but recently became deputy
director for outreach with USDA’s Farm
Service Agency.

he Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) is a nonprofit tribal organization with 57 tribal members across 19 states committed to restoring buffalo herds to Indian Nations. This is being done in a manner that is compatible with the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of these tribes. ITBC customers include the restaurant at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It also provides buffalo robes and skulls for museum displays.

Helping ITBC in this effort is the funding it has received under the Small and Minority Producer Grant (SMPG) program of USDA Rural Development. This program provides funds and technical assistance to cooperatives or associations of cooperatives of smallscale, minority agricultural producers. The co-op or association must have a governing board and/or membership comprised of at least 75 percent minorities.

The role of ITBC, as established by it members, is coordinating the movement of surplus buffalo from national parks to tribal lands and developing marketing strategies. It also acts as a facilitator for educational and training programs.

ITBC provides technical assistance to members to help them develop management plans that will enable tribal herds to become self-sustaining. To do this, tribes need to acquire business tools to develop and implement long-term business and marketing plans for their individual herds.

Combining heritage and

Many Native American communities and tribal governments manage their herds solely for heritage and spiritual purposes. The challenge facing them is to also manage their herds as economically self-supporting businesses.

Some tribes regularly take children enrolled in tribal Head Start programs on tours of the buffalo herds to teach them about nature and the heritage of their tribes. Tribes also slaughter a select few animals for special events, sun dances and for consumption by the elders of the tribe.

“All of our member-tribes know it takes money to manage a herd properly,” explains Greg Wrangel, marketing director for ITBC. “People have been waiting for a comprehensive approach to make the tribal herds economically viable, as well as embodying our heritage and spiritually.” In its effort to use buffalo as an economic resource, USDA awarded ITBC funds from the Small and Minority Producer Grants program to provide tribal members with:
  • An assessment of current management and business practices;
  • Business and marketing software;
  • Regional training on using new software for each tribe’s buffalo program;
  • The newest available production and herd-management techniques;
  • A national conference, including training and the delivery of preliminary project evaluations. The first phase of the project involved evaluating current management and business practices for individual tribal herds. Most members did not previously have any written business or marketing plans, working only on verbal directives from tribal councils or leaders. These directives are often subject to sudden change because of tribal elections.

    A software package — designed to help them develop their own feasibility analysis, business plans and marketing plans — was purchased and distributed to tribal members. ITBC then held five regional meetings in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Oregon to familiarize tribal members with the software and related business concepts. Training sessions have been conducted for 42 tribes so far.

    “We had members bring their laptops, loaded with the software,” Wrangel says. “Then we walked them through the business plan process. Each member was able to create a unique, basic business plan for his her tribe’s buffalo herd during the training session.”

    Binders were distributed containing the most up-to-date information on herd management, organic- and natural-production guidelines, new veterinarian techniques, feed instructions, pasture management, noxious-weed management and university/extension bulletins on marketing. A second binder was distributed highlighting relevant government services and contacts that may be beneficial to herd management and marketing.

    Hide tannery studied
    Additionally, ITBC is looking into the economic feasibility of operating a jointly owned and operated tannery. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska operates a small tannery, which currently processes hides from ITBC and other tribes. The Santee Sioux Tribe, also located in Nebraska, is looking to develop its own tannery business for its tribal members, as well as for ITBC. A business partnership between ITBC members and tribal tanneries, combined with a solid marketing plan, could create an alternative and profitable revenue stream for tribal buffalo programs.

    The culmination of the SMPG project was a national meeting of ITBC in Rapid City, S.D., Aug. 6-10, coinciding with the 2007 International Bison Conference. This provided an excellent opportunity to finish training tribal members on the use of their new software and provided follow-up assistance for fine-tuning business and marketing plans.

    The concurrent conferences provided an opportunity for ITBC and its members to learn from other, non- Native ranchers and the buffalo industry as a whole. It also helped tribal members establish industry contacts and build professional relationships. ITBC provided entertainment for the international conference, which included tribal dancers, re-enactors and a traditional village.

    For more information on the SMPG program, visit:

    January/February Table of Contents