After more than 100 years, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will return to their traditional hunting grounds near Yellowstone National Park to pursue bison this winter.
“I think it's a pretty special thing, after so many years, to rekindle that tradition of travel to provide food for the long house,” said Carl Scheeler, wildlife program manager for the tribe's Department of Natural Resources in Pendleton, Ore.
The Umatilla and the Shoshone-Bannock, of Fort Hall, Idaho, are the two newest of four American Indian tribes whose treaty rights have been recognized by the state of Montana, thereby allowing them to hunt bison that migrate from Yellowstone National Park into the state. The other two tribes are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Pablo and the Nez Perce Tribe of Lapwai, Idaho.
Through a special drawing, Montana also issues 44 either-sex bison licenses. Up to 100 cow-calf licenses are only issued if there are bison outside the park to hunt. Also, every time the state offers 40 or more either-sex bison licenses then two are offered to the eight Montana tribes. In the past, only five tribes have accepted the licenses so the rest go back into the general drawing.
When the bison leave the park, where hunting is not allowed, they concentrate in two main areas — north of West Yellowstone in the area of Horse Butte, and north of Gardiner near Eagle Creek. Although the animals bunch up in a relatively small area, so far there's been no hunter conflict, said Pat Flowers, Fish, Wildlife and Parks manager for Region 3 in Bozeman. That could change, though, as the winter progresses and more bison leave the park.
Although the tribal hunts occur in Montana, FWP has little oversight of tribal members.
“The main role we play is trying to coordinate with them to avoid conflicts between their hunters and state hunters,” Flowers said.
Other than that, each tribe sets its own season, has an orientation process for hunters and sometimes sends enforcement or wildlife officials along to monitor the hunt. Tribal members must be 18 or older and have a current tribal identification to participate.
“It's a very well regulated hunting process, I believe,” said Germaine White, information and education specialist for the Salish-Kootenai Department of Natural Resources.
Bison kills are not required to be reported, but so far this winter 70 bison have been reported killed — 48 by the Salish-Kootenai, eight by the Nez Perce, 12 by state hunters and another two that Flowers didn't have an accounting of. Of those, 31 have come from Gardiner and 39 from the West Yellowstone area.
“We've had a successful hunt,” White said.
This is the fourth year the Salish-Kootenai Tribes have participated. After a successful first year, the past two were less productive, White said. That's mainly because the federal government slaughtered 1,400 bison in the winter of 2007-2008. The bison are more likely to migrate out of the park when their population tops 3,000. The summer count of bison this year was 3,900. The bison are killed out of fear they might spread the disease brucellosis to cattle near the park's boundaries.
The Salish-Kootenai's bison season runs from Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, ending early to prevent the killing of pregnant cow bison. The Umatilla hunt will run through March. Montana breaks its season into three parts with the first one starting on Nov. 15 and the last one ending on Feb. 15.
To keep bison from straying onto private grazing lands, federal and state officials haze the bison back into the park, but not in the hunting areas. An increase in hunting pressure could relieve the need for hazing, said Tom McDonald, Fish and Wildlife Division manager for the Salish-Kootenai Tribes.
“It may ultimately save more bison from harvest than if there had been no hunt,” he said. “There could be more of an administrative take. And that saves taxpayers money.”
The bison at Yellowstone National Park have a special significance for the Salish-Kootenai Tribes, McDonald and White recounted.
When bison began dwindling from the Great Plains because of market hunting, Salish-Kootenai tribal members transplanted bison from east of the Continental Divide into the Flathead Valley. Those bison later became the seed herd for the Moiese National Bison Range and also supplemented the remnant herd of 25 animals that was hiding out in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.
McDonald said it's important to the tribe that the bison are killed through hunting rather than slaughtered by the federal government. He added that the tribe is also interested in seeing the animals restored to Montana as wildlife.
That's because for thousands of years the bison was intimately entwined with the Plains Indian way of life, McDonald said, not only supplying food but also shelter with its hide.
“It's very culturally and spiritually an innate fabric of our members,” he said. “Hunting bison again has rekindled songs, a sense of place. Talk about a self-esteem booster, it's been amazing.”
Scheeler, of the Umatilla Tribes, said only five hunters have applied for a permit to hunt Yellowstone bison so far, although about 30 had taken the orientation class.
Some may be hesitant about making the commitment to drive the 600 miles or more it takes to reach the bison — a nine-hour trip.
“It's a significant investment for tribal members to engage in the hunt,” Scheeler said, “as it was in the past.”
The Umatilla reservation is made up of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes. Before Euro-Americans arrived, members of the tribes would be gone for months or even a year to make buffalo hunting trips eastward to the Greater Yellowstone Area from their homelands in what is now southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon on the Columbia River Plateau, Scheeler said.
“Certainly this is the longest distance they ever traveled for subsistence needs,” he said.
Scheeler is looking forward to the fact that the people who have applied for the Umatilla permits will be participating as families — as do many of the other bison hunters.
“It's not sport hunting, it's a community event,” he said. “I'm very much looking forward to it becoming a family tradition.”
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.