AN ELECTRICAL STORM IS BREWING as Trudy Ecoffey and I barrel across the short-grass prairie of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I expected a rough ride—in addition to being hard country generally, some of this land once served as a bombing range and is to this day littered with unexploded ordnance— but Ecoffey, a biologist with the Oglala Lakota tribe, failed to warn me about our cargo. Which stinks like you can’t imagine. When I look to her uncomprehendingly, with pleading eyes, she apologizes. “I didn’t think about that last night. I had to put the stink sticks in the vehicle with us.”
Stink sticks, Ecoffey tells me as I thrust my head out the passenger-side window and gasp for air, are wooden stakes dipped in a vile concoction that attract swift foxes to the cameras she’s set up around the reservation. About the size of a house cat, with big pointy ears and a black-tipped feathery tail, the swift fox saw its population decline dramatically in the Great Plains around the turn of the 20th century. It’s a ferocious predator—at least if you’re a prairie dog—and is revered by the Lakota, who named an elite class of warriors after the animal. “It’s a tough little critter,” she says.
In 2009 Ecoffey brought 54 of the foxes to this windswept prairie and fitted them with radio collars, and she’s been monitoring their progress ever since. In itself, her mission to help reintroduce the animals to their former territory has been successful. But Trudy Ecoffey represents more than the gradual return of an endangered species. In a way, she’s also an olive branch from the U.S. government to the Oglala Lakota, a Sioux Nation tribe it evicted from a swath of the reservation 70 years ago to create the bombing range and, later, Badlands National Park. This land has been a source of dispute and disappointment for decades; now, suddenly, it’s grounds for hope.
“Something needed to change between the National Park Service and the tribe,” says Ecoffey. Last year it did—and that, in turn, has given rise to something that could change the way we think of national parks in America. As go the foxes, so too go the Lakota.
Read the rest in the February issue of Hemispheres