President's Letter: Indigenous Wisdom and Indigenous-Led Knowledge

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF-US

WWF holds many events every year, each with a different purpose: to share knowledge, to pursue innovative solutions to the complicated problems facing the world, to connect with our partners, and more. Every once in a while, we gather to celebrate.

Such was the case at WWF’s annual dinner, held last October at the extraordinary National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where we came together to celebrate how Native Nations are leading the way in returning bison to their traditional homelands. US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, delivered the keynote address. Among other things, Secretary Haaland talked about the importance of utilizing Indigenous knowledge in the practice of conservation.

One example: Since 2014, WWF has partnered with Native Nations throughout the Northern Great Plains in support of their bison restoration efforts. It is difficult to overstate the immense ecological and cultural value of the plains bison to the lifeways and lands of Native Nations. In fact, many plains people consider bison their relatives.

At one point, bison were the widest-ranging large mammal in North America, numbering between 30 million and 60 million. But by 1889, only 512 plains bison remained after the ravages of westward expansion, market demand, and a deliberate effort by the US government to eliminate the species to subdue the Native people who relied so heavily upon them.

After their near extermination, plains bison were successfully brought back by Indigenous peoples and conservationists to a population of approximately 45,000 in tribal and conservation herds. Of those, more than half are managed by Native Nations.

The commitment of those Native American leaders seeking to restore bison to their lands is the cornerstone of the species’ recovery. Moving forward, WWF will continue to follow the lead of Native Nations to identify opportunities and create places where bison can thrive in large herds—numbering over 1,000 bison—on vast landscapes in the Northern Great Plains.

While the work is far from over, there is much to celebrate.

The Sicangu Lakota Nation is on track to create one of the largest Native-owned and -managed bison herds in North America—an impressive feat that honors Lakota foundational values and beliefs and the unbreakable connection between the Buffalo People and this iconic species. In 2020, the nation committed 28,000 acres of native grassland on the lands of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota for the creation of the Wolakota Buffalo Range.

“It is WWF’s conviction that supporting locally led conservation will be our greatest contribution to a healthy and sustainable planet.”


A partnership between Sicangu Co—the economic arm of the Sicangu Lakota Nation—and WWF is advancing the project with support from the Rosebud Tribal Land Enterprise, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s land management corporation, and the US Department of the Interior. The initiative will increase the overall number of Native American-owned bison by an impressive 7% nationally.

And while these historic projects can’t change the past, their success can help shape a better future. Because whether in America’s Great Plains, the Amazon, Africa’s savannas, or the mountains of the Himalayas, it is WWF’s conviction that supporting locally led conservation—born from and shaped around the needs and vision of those who not only have the most at stake but also the most vital role to play—will be our greatest contribution to a healthy and sustainable planet.

Understanding how and why these special places—along with their wildlife, plants, insects, and more—hold sacred value for the people who have stewarded them for millennia is central to our conservation ethos, and a priority of mine as president of WWF-US.

I look forward to many more gatherings—to learn from each other, and to celebrate our triumphs together.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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