Lower Brule expanding conservation efforts with StrikeForce

LOWER BRULE--The hills in the Lower Brule Reservation are dotted with eastern red cedar trees--but not for much longer. Through the United State Department of Agriculture StrikeForce program, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Department of Wildlife, Fi...

The Lower Brule Wildlife Fish and Rec department recently implemented a StrikeForce project on the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe reservation. (Caitlynn Peetz/Republic)

LOWER BRULE-The hills in the Lower Brule Reservation are dotted with eastern red cedar trees-but not for much longer.

Through the United State Department of Agriculture StrikeForce program, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Department of Wildlife, Fish and Recreation is looking to eliminate the "invasive" trees, which are ultimately reducing grazing area for cattle, on 130 acres of tribal land. The organization plans to remove the trees over the next four years.

"In reality, that should all be flat, clear rangeland," said Wildlife Biologist Shaun Grassel for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe Department of Wildlife, Fish and Recreation.

The cedar removal is scheduled to begin this summer. Additionally, the department, over four years, will be spraying 2,910 acres of land to kill noxious weeds-specifically musk thistle. That project began in fall 2015.

Grassel said the department was working on controlling both prior to implementing StrikeForce, but the program provides reimbursement for the group's efforts, providing more dollars to control a greater amount of land.


"We identify total acreage that we are going to control each year," Grassel said. "What will happen is we will get reimbursed for a portion of that, then use that reimbursement to treat more land. It allows us to leverage additional dollars to control thistle on more land. That's the same model we're using to remove eastern red cedar."

StrikeForce provides special, targeted assistance through the USDA to counties that have high poverty levels. Thirteen counties in South Dakota utilize StrikeForce resources, including Lyman, Gregory, Buffalo and Charles Mix counties, generating 1,274 projects in 2015. In the same year, 55 jobs were created or saved across the state, 258 farmers were assisted, 597,963 summer meals for kids were provided and $76 million was invested in state-wide projects. Twenty-six states are involved in the StrikeForce program.

According to Jeff Zimprich, NRCS state conservationist for South Dakota, the first year of the StrikeForce program in South Dakota was 2013, and there is a "strong correlation" between counties that were identified to be in the program and what is considered to be "historically Native American and tribal areas."

"We were actually told which counties in South Dakota would be part of the program-it wasn't something we got a chance to select," Zimprich said. "We were told, 'OK, South Dakota, you're going to be part of StrikeForce this year.' They weren't chosen solely because they were reservations or tribal areas, though. They were chosen more based on poverty levels, income levels, things like that."

StrikeForce, Zimprich said, makes a difference for a variety of people through the different groups involved, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, GROW South Dakota, Great Plains Native Asset Building Coalition, etc.

"I would say (StrikeForce) has a pretty significant impact," Zimprich said. "I think that when I have talked to the partners involved with us, they have seemed very appreciative. It's more than just a helping hand. It's resources that are helping make a difference."

Beneficial, also, is the fact that local entities or groups typically identify the issues important to the area, and are passionate about finding solutions.

"It's not like USDA strolls in and says, 'We're here to help you,' " Zimprich said. "It's people going 'We really have this need, and we're trying to figure out how to solve it."


Grassel said the StrikeForce program also provides job opportunities for people on the reservation. Specifically, in Lower Brule, the handful of people who apply the chemicals to control noxious weeds must be both state and federally certified to do so. And, for tree removal, machine operators become "highly proficient" in operating the equipment and in maintenance, making him or her more marketable to future employers.

Tribal Liaison for the Lower Brule and Crow Creek reservations with the USDA-NRCS Chamberlain Field Office Darrel Du Vall said the work acts as a springboard for individuals working with the program, and the federal assistance only benefits the people involved.

"It will help with a more long-term impact for a few of their individuals," Du Vall said. "The best part about it is that it's local. It's a federal agency coming in and working alongside us and asking what we need to help keep the project moving."

Ultimately, Grassel said, because the Wildlife, Fish and Recreation department had formerly received funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to implement conservation practices and projects, its ultimate goal through utilizing the StrikeForce program is simple: Grow.

"The main goal is just to leverage additional dollars that we can do more work with," Grassel said. "If we can treat more weeds, that improves our rangeland conditions, that benefits wildlife, benefits producers. The more we can do the better, and this helps us to do that."

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