When it comes to bison, Montana’s tribes want a seat near the head of the decision-making table.
Last week in Wind River, Wyo., the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council Board unanimously approved a resolution asking Montana to stop hazing Yellowstone National Park bison and to allow their migration to nearby summer ranges outside the park.
“The time is right. So much is changing in Indian country. I knew it wouldn’t be hard to convince the council,” said spokesman Jimmy St. Goddard. “It’s time that people start understanding how sacred the (bison) are.”
The resolution coincides with spring hazing operations conducted by the Montana departments of Livestock and Fish, Wildlife & Parks to drive bison back into the park.
The resolution lists specific reasons for halting the hazing, particularly in the Hebgen Basin northwest of West Yellowstone. Foremost is an assertion that the state’s jurisdiction over the bison also implies the state must protect them for the tribes.
They sent the resolution and a letter to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, asking him to recognize that responsibility and work with the tribes to develop policy that preserves the Yellowstone herd. The council represents the tribes of all eight Montana reservations and three in Wyoming.
“We did receive the letter but have not yet decided how to respond,” said Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliott.
The tribes and conservationists treasure the Yellowstone herd because it is directly descended from the wild herds of the Great Plains. Most other herds have hybridized with cattle.
Cattle are the reason for the hazing. Cattle ranchers fear brucellosis, which can cause cows to abort their calves.
While elk have been shown to be the carriers in most brucellosis cases, bison remain the target of state disease management.
A few weeks ago, state employees began hazing bison in the Hebgen area of Zone 3, an area defined in the Interagency Bison Management Plan as a bison non-tolerance zone.
State veterinarian Marty Zaluski said the timing of hazing depends on the number of bison in an area, the amount of snow and emergence of cattle forage.
“Around 350 buffalo were in the Horse Butte area, and we had operations running Saturday and Sunday to keep them out of cattle properties,” Zaluski said. “We’ve not been very successful at that.”
One cattle rancher is moving his herd in this week, Zaluski said. Normally, cattle don’t move in until June when 600 to 700 cattle are moved onto National Forest land.
Ideally, ranchers should wait 30 days after buffalo have moved out to avoid potential exposure, Zaluski said.
Ironically, the Horse Butte peninsula is one of the areas that FWP proposed as a year-round area for bison, with the support of many landowners. The proposal must undergo the lengthy process of environmental assessment and public comment, but in a few years, hazing at Heart Butte could be moot.
The council’s resolution claims that hazing should be stopped now because, according to the bison management plan, “hazing would cease if there was evidence of grizzlies being active in the area.”
Local residents and FWP have reported grizzlies in the area since March but that’s not enough, according to the FWP.
“Bears are always active at this time of year, and we’re not going to halt operations just because they’re out there,” said FWP spokeswoman Andrea Jones. “If our field employees actually see a grizzly in the area, then operations would be suspended.”
If Schweitzer and the state of Montana do not respond, St. Goddard said the resolution would go to the National Congress of American Indians.
“The National Congress will put pressure on the Legislature to initiate this resolution,” St. Goddard said. “Schweitzer and (Sen. Jon) Tester are important men, but tribes are important in this country too. The power of the treaties initiated the power of this resolution.”
Three Montana reservations now manage bison herds, and the National Bison Range is on the Flathead Reservation. The Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations recently received 61 bison from Yellowstone National Park.
Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or email@example.com.