Three still-bloody buffalo skulls sit in the snowy backyard of Brandon Siemion's Fort Smith home.
For Siemion and his parents, George and Nelvette Siemion, it's one more blow in their efforts to keep the family's bison operation afloat.
The problem, they say, began in 2006 when leases they held on tribally owned grazing lands weren't renewed. They have a lawsuit pending in Crow Tribal Court over the matter.
But the killing of the three bison around Jan. 20 adds another layer of anger and frustration.
George and Nelvette have operated the White Buffalo Ranch on the Crow Reservation since 1969. Nelvette is an enrolled member of the tribe.
The couple owns about 1,800 acres, but have leased as many as 42,000 acres from the tribe over the years to run their bison operation.
A drive up to the ranch on a bumpy, sometimes winding two-lane road reveals the craggy hills all around, with red rock jutting out.
“The northern-most tip of the Bighorn Mountains is where my parents' house is,” Brandon Siemion said as he drove up to the ranch house.
George and Nelvette live in a log house that George built more than 40 years ago. They raised three boys, and Brandon, the youngest, lives the closest.
On the drive to his parents' house, he points in the direction of the winter and summer pastures where the bison used to graze. The herd, which the Simieons say totaled more than 400 when the leasing trouble began, is now down to 13.
Loss of grazing land and mounting bills forced them to sell most of the animals. A roundup by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2008 over a trespassing charge they dispute also injured individual bison, the Siemions say.
They've kept a remnant of the herd, Brandon Siemion said, so that if they get past their current difficulties, the herd's genetics will remain intact.
The situation is complex. A look at a map of land in and around the ranch the Siemions own, eight miles west of Fort Smith, shows one reason why.
A jigsaw puzzle of color reveals yellow parcels of tribally owned trust lands, dark green segments of allotted trust lands and brown patches of deeded fee land. It's land that can mean the difference between making a living and going under financially.
That kind of pressure can cause friction and hard feelings between neighbors, and between ranchers and the agencies that oversee those lands. The Siemions have been party to both.
Over the past nearly three years, the family has tried hard to regain tribally leased land they insist they are entitled to. A civil trial in tribal court set for March 25 may decide the issue.
But now they also want justice for the killing of the three bison, which left them reeling. Brandon Siemion remembers the date well.
“January 20, my birthday, the day I turned 40,” he said, sitting at a kitchen table inside his parents' home.
Siemion didn't discover the animals until that Sunday, Jan. 23. He had intended to track down the herd so he could butcher two of the animals, one for his family and one for a paying customer.
He went up to the pasture one day with equipment and went back the next day to find them.
On Jan. 21 he found seven bison, which he held in a pasture, while he and others went to find the rest. But fierce winds ended the search, and finally, he postponed going after the animals until Sunday.
Siemion took along his cousin, Crow legislator Patrick Alden Jr., and George Siemion joined them. Brandon Siemion, on an ATV, took the lead, with his father in a pickup and Alden riding in a third vehicle behind them.
“I'm going ahead scouting and I can't find those seven bison,” Siemion said. “I found one bull. He wasn't with the others. He was off by himself.”
Siemion, riding to the next pasture, sought a high point to get a look around. He noticed birds in the distance swooping around something on the snowy ground.
He stops his narrative for a moment and points to a section of land on the map, showing where he found the animals.
Back to his story, he hurried over to see what the birds were dining on.
“I got over there and it's not horses, it's not cows,” he said. “It's three dead bulls. The heads are gone. The only things that are there are the rib cages and the backbones.”
After calling 911, the men looked for clues to what might have happened. George Siemion found a shell casing.
He volunteered to go into Fort Smith to meet a BIA police officer out of Crow Agency. George Simieon waited inside the small Fort Smith grocery store and chatted with a cashier, a friend of his.
He asked her if she had seen anyone come through who looked like they had been hunting.
“She says, 'Last Thursday I was working and these guys came in a little bit before 6 o'clock and they were all bloody and muddy and they made a mess on my floor,' “ Siemion said.
From different sources, the Siemions identified the men as Crow tribal fish and game wardens.
William Lecompte, assistant special agent in charge for the BIA Office of Justice Services in Billings, confirmed that the investigation showed members of the Crow Fish & Game Department killed the buffalo. But with the case now in the hands of the Crow tribal prosecutor Diane Cabrera, Lecompte could release no other details.
As Siemion looked into what happened, he heard from others that the game wardens had been told by officials from another agency that the bison didn't belong to anyone. The men thought they could shoot the bison with impunity, Brandon Siemion said.
He shared his suspicions with the BIA police officer. And he told her what he wanted.
“I told the officer, 'There's three heads, three hides and a bunch of meat. I want 'em,' ” he said.
BIA law enforcement recovered the skulls and the hides and returned them to Siemion. He has located some of the meat, but it was rotted or dried out and probably not salvageable. The rest isn't accounted for.
“That's close to 2,000 pounds of meat, judging by size of heads and hides,” he said.
The bison weren't branded, George Siemion said.
“The first batch we brought in, we did brand them,” he said.
But the hides are much more valuable if they don't have any marks on them.
“That's how people want them,” he said.
Instead the bison are identified by ear tags.
Another issue is that the bison likely wandered onto land not presently leased by the Siemions. Regardless, Brandon Siemion said they weren't fair game for others to shoot.
On Thursday, the Siemions met with Cabrera. Contacted about that meeting, Cabrera said she had received a preliminary report about the incident but could not comment “because it's still a pending investigation.”
Siemion believes that alive, the bison would have fetched an estimated $4,000 each. He wants to know who's going to pay for the animals.