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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 24, 2004 - Issue 105


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As tribal bison herd gets larger, food supply dwindles

by Mike Stark of the Billings (Montana) Gazette Staff
credits: photo 1: Part of the Crow Tribe of Montana’s 1,200-bison herd is shown here near the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area along the Wyoming border. photo 2: The Crow Tribe of Montana’s 1,100-bison herd, wintering in the Bighorn Mountains, has been moving off the reservation to public and private lands in Wyoming because forage is in scarce supply. Photos By LARRY MAYER/ Gazette Staff

Part of the Crow Tribe of Montana’s 1,200-bison herd is shown here near the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area along the Wyoming border.High atop a snow-swept plateau on the Crow Reservation, bison shuffled in the morning sun at the sound of an approaching airplane.

As it passed overhead, most of the shaggy giants raced to the south, while a few others scattered here and there. They ran for a few seconds and, as the plane buzzed away, regrouped on a bare patch of ground that overlooks Bighorn Lake, craggy canyon walls and a wild landscape that stretches to every horizon.

On this day, the sightseers' plane was a minor disturbance for the Crow bison that roam 22,000 acres on the reservation.

The rest of the winter hasn't been so easy for them - or for the people trying to manage them.

Recent drought and a growing herd have pinched the food supply and sent hundreds of buffalo spilling off the reservation onto private and public land in Wyoming.

With ranchers and government officials worried about bison feeding on cattle grazing allotments, Crow Agency crews this fall and winter have been busy trying to push the bison back onto the reservation and keep them there. Because of the steep terrain and deep snow, much of the work has been done in helicopters and aboard snowmobiles, trucks and ATVs.

"It's been pretty hectic," said Leroy Stewart, director of the buffalo program at Crow Agency.

Three people on bison crews have been injured, none seriously, including one man who was in a pickup truck when it rolled at the bottom of a canyon and another who crashed an ATV.

Meanwhile, tribal officials are looking for ways to reduce the size of the herd - which now stands at about 1,100 - and possibly recoup some of the high costs of hazing.

About 200 buffalo have been killed this season, with most of the meat going to tribal members. An upswing in buffalo prices and a chance to get bison meat into a federal food program could help, Stewart said.

Tribal officials are determined to make something work.

"For most tribes, the economic impact isn't the driving force behind it," said Fred DuBray, director of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, of Rapid City, S.D., which represents more than 50 American Indian tribes with bison herds. "There are a lot of cultural realities that exist."

The Crow Tribe of Montana’s 1,100-bison herd, wintering in the Bighorn Mountains, has been moving off the reservation to public and private lands in Wyoming because forage is in scarce supply.Millions of bison once wandered the continent, providing spiritual and physical nourishment to tribes. In the 1800s, hunts and slaughters reduced the bison population from about 60 million to a few hundred.

In recent generations, tribes throughout the West have been restoring bison to the landscape "to help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo," according to the bison cooperative.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota has the largest herd in the country with about 3,500 bison, DuBray said.

On the Crow Reservation, the current herd is the second attempt in a century to bring back the bison.

In the early 1930s, bison were brought to the reservation from Yellowstone National Park and the National Bison Range near Moiese.

In following years, the bison tested positive for brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to abort their calves. Pressure mounted from cattle ranchers to do something. The herd, which had grown to about 1,500, was eliminated between 1962 and 1966.

The tribe reintroduced bison to the reservation again in 1971, this time importing about 400 animals from Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where brucellosis has not been a problem.

Ideally, the Crow herd should be several hundred bison fewer than 1,100, Stewart said, but tribal officials have had a tough time limiting the population and keeping the animals within the reservation borders. The recent drought hasn't helped.

Wildlife managers have designated tens of thousands of acres on the reservation for the bison to graze, much of it in high, remote areas where the animals can roam freely. But the grasses and other food sources have been stressed by a lack of moisture, providing dwindling forage that is slow to be replenished.

The bison have eaten much of what's available, Stewart said.

"They've cleaned out the forage area this year," he said. "With the drought, there wasn't enough forage for them and they started heading south."

The southward migration began in the fall as bison left the reservation and crossed the Montana-Wyoming line east of Bighorn Lake, about 13 miles north of Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, northeast of Lovell.

Unlike bison that walk out of Yellowstone National Park, where ranchers are concerned that brucellosis might be transmitted to cattle, the concern over Crow bison, which are brucellosis-free, centers around something more basic: food.

Not long after leaving the reservation, the Crow bison were eating on private ranch land and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management and Bighorn National Forest, raising concerns that the bison might cut into food supplies meant for cattle. Some also worried that federal agencies might cut back on grazing allotments as a reaction to the bison.

More than 500 bison were pushed back to the reservation in the first week that tribal crews began tracking them in the air and on the ground. Since then, more have wandered off the reservation and efforts to get them back have been renewed.

"It's very expensive and in that kind of terrain, you really have to watch it," Stewart said.

Cold weather, deep snow, heavy timber and treacherous terrain can make it difficult to get to the bison and then steer them where they need to go. Crews have had several close calls getting out of canyons and other tight spots, Stewart said.

"As many times as we push them, there's a higher percentage of ... accidents and it's taken a toll," Stewart said, mentioning the three workers who have been injured this year. "Besides, it's a lot of wear and tear on the vehicles. All of our ATVs and snowmobiles are in the shop right now."

Wildlife managers have been talking with federal officials about the possibility of putting up a fence at a bottleneck passage on the south end of the reservation, Stewart said. Bison, though, are known to move easily through fences or over them.

Continued monitoring and perhaps a few fences may be part of the solution, but tribal officials are also looking at other measures.

About 200 bison were harvested in an effort to downsize the herd. Most of the meat went to tribal members and a few bison were sold.

Stewart said the tribe might have sold more bison earlier but the prices were low. That could be changing soon.

The buffalo market may be buoyed by news that a cow in Washington state had mad cow disease.

"Buffalo prices should shoot up any day," Stewart said.

If that happens, 200 to 300 bison may be trucked off the Crow Reservation and sold, he said. The revenue could be used to cover the expenses of hazing bison and to fund education and natural resource programs.

DuBray said he believes efforts to market bison were already pushing up buffalo prices before the news about mad cow. Tribes could benefit from a potential bump in prices from mad cow, but DuBray cautioned that bison exports face some of the same restrictions as cattle.

"I don't think we want to jump on this as a marketing opportunity," he said. "I'd hate to exploit someone else's problem."

But beyond mad cow, DuBray said, interest in bison may be growing among consumers. The grass-fed bison managed by the tribes could be considered organic but DuBray said he tends to shy away from that classification because "it means so many different things."

Bison elsewhere could be housed in a pen and fed organic food and still be considered organic, he said. The tribal bison are "much more than that."

"Basically they're wild animals and they're treated that way," DuBray said.

The Intertribal Bison Cooperative has also been pushing to allow tribal buffalo to be included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.

DuBray said the program tends to purchase surplus food and pass it along to the reservations. Too often, he said, the food doesn't provide a proper nutritional balance.

"So unfortunately, a large part of their diet has been these kinds of foods, lots of carbohydrates, fat and cholesterol. That leads to health problems on the reservation," DuBray said. "It needs to be addressed."

Tribal officials are lobbying the federal government to widen the variety of food that's provided in the program. Bison raised by the tribes would be healthier for recipients, DuBray said.

For the Crow, getting into the federal program would give managers a chance to trim the herd, make some money to cover their costs and provide sustenance for the reservations.

"We're trying to get native food to native people and get revenue back from what we're doing," Stewart said.

Crow Indian Reservation, Mt Map

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