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BIA visits Brighton, Big Cypress reservations

Natural Resources Department director Aaron Stam, left, shows Bureau of Indian Affairs branch chief of Agriculture and Rangeland development Thomas Mendez an example of the whitehead broom weed, an invasive species commonly found in pastures throughout South Florida. Mendez toured the Big Cypress Reservation on Aug. 24. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — Officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs met with Aaron Stam, the Seminole Tribe’s Natural Resources Department director, during a visit to the Brighton and Big Cypress reservations Aug. 23 and 24.

Eric Wilcox, administrative officer for the BIA’s eastern region, toured Brighton and met with cattle owners over lunch Aug. 23. The following day Thomas Mendez, branch chief of Agriculture and Rangeland Development in the BIA’s office of Trust Services’ division of Natural Resources, met with Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers and toured the reservation with Stam.

The BIA officials were told about the function of the tribe’s Natural Resources Department’s program and the challenges facing the tribe’s cattle producers, including invasive species and water issues on the reservations.

“This is a good chance to show him the reservations in person,” said Stam, who introduced them to the cow crews and familiarized them with the cattle operation.

Stam also outlined some of the differences between the reservations’ geography to Mendez (Mescalero Apache), who is from New Mexico. Brighton is subtropical and Big Cypress is tropical with swamps and cypress heads. Although the natural environments are different on the reservations, the Natural Resources program is fundamentally the same tribalwide.

Mendez wasn’t familiar with the tribe’s cattle program, so Stam explained that the tribal ranchers own their herds and the Natural Resources program provides services to the cattle owners.

“A lot of young people want to be in the program,” Stam said. “There is a waiting list for pastures.”

The Seminole 4-H program feeds into the cattle program. Mendez and Stam toured the Big Cypress 4-H barn near the Junior Cypress Rodeo Arena and talked about taking care of animals and pens.

“There is a lot of support in the tribe for 4-H,” Stam said. “The show and sale is always a huge event and we have more steers this year then since I’ve been with the tribe.”

From there, the men went to the Big Cypress cow pens, where owners recently shipped their calves to feed lots. Stam showed Mendez recent improvements to the old pens and said he patches and replaces wood every year.

In addition to agriculture programs, BIA funding also targets invasive species. The whitehead broom weed was introduced to Florida in the 1940s or 1950s, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension service. The weed is an important source of nectar for a wasp that was released as a biocontrol agent in the 1980s against the mole cricket, which damages pastures, forage and turf grass. Since then, the weed has become a problem in many pastures in South Florida.

“The weeds are only about 1.3% protein,” Stam said. “The cows don’t eat it and now it’s everywhere.”

BIA funding, which increased this year, helps the tribe deal with these and other challenges.

“The BIA has been a partner with us for years,” Stam said to Mendez at the start of the tour. “We will see areas where we’ve been successful and areas where we have more challenges ahead.”

From left, Brian Billie, Thomas Mendez, Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers and Aaron Stam after having lunch at the Swamp Water Cafe in Billie Swamp Safari on Aug. 24. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at