Blackfoot Bison or Public Herd?

bison walking

A recent press release from CBS contains this statement.

“The 89 plains bison, also known as buffalo, will form the nucleus of a herd that tribal leaders envision will soon roam freely across a vast landscape: the Blackfeet reservation, nearby Glacier National Park and the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness – more than 4,000 square miles combined.”


It was no surprise as Marias River Livestock Association had been tracking the Iinni Initiative for the last few years and expected this announcement. Ervin Carlson had come and spoken at one the MRLA meetings informing about the Iinni  Initiative.  He and others have presented the restoration effort at the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) Committee   and the State and Tribal Relationship Committee The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has also created  a video speaking of the Initiative.

WCS and the Tribe are basing this move on treaty rights.  Their position is they have the right to hunt bison so they have the right to a free roaming herd and the Federal Government should provide such opportunity.  It is also claimed to be culturally important to them to have the Iinnii other than the commercial bison herd they have owned since the 1970’s and they hope that it will provide economic opportunities for individuals on the Reservation to start tourism based businesses.

“Keith Aune, a bison expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the agreement has parallels with the 1855 Lame Bull Treaty, a peace deal brokered by the U.S. government that established hunting rights tribes.

“They shared a common hunting ground, and that enabled them to live in the buffalo way,” Aune said. “We’re recreating history, but this time on (the tribes’) terms.”

The treaty signatories collectively control more than 6 million acres of prairie habitat in the U.S. and Canada, an area roughly the size of Vermont, according to Aune’s group.

Among the first sites eyed for bison reintroduction is along the Rocky Mountain Front, which includes Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation bordering Glacier National Park and several smaller First Nation reserves.”

Keith Aune, who was employed by Montana FWP for 31 years, is now Director of the Bison Conservation Program for the WCS, where he works closely with the Blackfeet Tribes in the US and Canada.

 “Wildlife Conservation Society’s Iinnii Initiative is a partnership with the Blackfeet people that seeks to restore bison to the amazing landscape of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which spans the US-Canadian border. The Iinnii Initiative is working with the Blackfeet People to develop a new vision for conservation of spectacular wildlands along the Rocky Mountain Front, sustaining their Blackfeet culture, and creating a homeland for innii (bison).” ( )

We are left wondering if there will be opportunity for public input before bison are allowed in Glacier National Park or the Badger-Two Medicine area.  My guess is there will not be any public input asked for. The Tribe has the right to call this herd wildlife and allow them to roam freely on the Reservation.  This document  which was prepared by Helen Thigpen, Staff Attorney, Environmental Quality Council in December, 2012 points out that the State of Montana- FWP or Dept of Livestock- has no jurisdiction over the bison while they are on Federal Land or the within the exterior boundaries of the Revervation.   Either agency, FWP or DOL, would only be involved if the herds came into the State or they were given authority by the National Forest to be involved in bison management, say a hunting season.

“When bison leave Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana, the management responsibilities and authorities change. Within the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, the Secretary of the Interior has exclusive jurisdiction to manage the park’s natural resources, including the bison. Outside the park the State of Montana has the management authority over the bison. When the bison are on national forest system lands, the U.S. Forest Service has responsibilities under federal laws to provide habitat for the bison, a native species. Federal law requires APHIS to control and prevent the spread of communicable and contagious diseases of livestock. Because of these mandates, the agencies recognize that a coordinated, cooperative management regime would provide consistency and reliability to the process.28”

These bison have come and will come across the Canadian border as livestock.  The tribes being sovereign nations may call them what they wish and manage them as they wish, unlike the American Prairie Reserve who at this time must retain ownership of their bison aquired from Elk Island as livestock and the responsibility for the herd.

The National Parks and Forest Service have legal responsibility to provide habitat for native wildlife. The NPS and NFS are not introducing bison; they are just providing habitat, just as they would for the Canadian bison should they wander from Banff in the future.  Elk, grizzly bears and other wildlife do not understand borders and are allowed to wander freely across international, tribal and state borders.  The Blackfoot Tribe has not involved the Montana Fish Wildlife and Park in this plan which limits public input and  eliminates the need for a MOU with the FWP. They chose to work as a sovereign nation in conjunction with the other tribes that they have signed the treaty with and WCS.

While at a IGBC meeting held at Many Glacier, I listened as Jeff Mow, Glacier Park Superintendent and Mark Beil, Natural Resource Manger, discussed their willingness to allow the Iinnii Initiative bison into the park as long as they were genetically pure. While their intent may seem noble, it would be prudent to have a bison management plan in place.  Just recently Yellowstone National Park put out a press release which was to dispel myths about bison management one statement stands out.

” …we don’t know of any bison conservation herds in North America that are naturally regulated: all require population reduction by direct capture and removal or hunting. If met, the reduction target this year will only reduce the population by up to 10%.”

When one looks at the current struggle the Grand Canyon National Park also has, you can see that bison population management can be challenging in the rough terrains of the National Parks.  In a past article carried in the Cut Bank Pioneer Press   October, 2011  “Magee emphasized the need for a management plan. “You can’t allow the herd to grow beyond manageability,” he said.”   To our knowledge there is no management plan in place for these bison on public lands; Lack of a plan that has been publicly vetted is concerning to landowners in our area.

Marias River Livestock Association’s main concerns with a free roaming bison herd are:

  • Property rights of landowners on and off the Reservation.
  • Lack of avenue for public input if bison are allowed on public land.
  • The fact that the bison come to the U.S. as livestock and would possibly change to a public herd.
  • The waver given by the MT State Veterinarian to allow the bison that did not have calfhood vaccinations for brucellosis to come into the state.
  • Possible disease issues in the future as brucellosis infected elk spread and the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) grows.
  • Seeming lack of bison population management plan and clear statement of who would be responsible.
  • Possible loss of grazing permits in the National Forest
  • The hunting of bison on private property due to damage to fences (as is seen with elk hunting)
  • Human Safety
  • Peoples fear of speaking against the plan due to retribution from the Tribe against their property, leases or businesses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s