American Indian hunters near Gardiner are shooting elk as the animals leave Yellowstone National Park — and local residents are furious.
“We’re pretty upset with the Native Americans shooting elk right now,” said Pat Hoppe, a Gardiner retiree. “The Nez Perce just opened up on the elk. I don’t know what they got. The numbers range from 20 to 50 elk.”
Most of the hunting is taking place near Jardine Road and Little Creek Road. Hoppe said. Four different tribes have treaty rights established in 1855 that allow them to hunt just north of Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner.
Bison are what’s mostly hunted by the tribes and others. This year, bison killed by tribal and nontribal hunters number at least 360.
The tribes with hunting rights include the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana, the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock tribes of Idaho, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon.
Contacted by The Gazette on Monday, the Nez Perce would not speak on the record about their treaty rights.
This year’s tribal hunting season has been contentious, said state Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, who was driving to Gardiner on Monday for a town hall meeting at Gardiner School. The Monday meeting was Redfield’s second in four days concerning the tribal hunt.
Representatives from the tribes met Friday with federal and state officials for a meeting Redfield said mostly dealt with safety concerns about the hunt. Hunters have shot across the highway, toward buildings and people. At one point a game warden had to jump behind a truck to avoid being shot, Redfield said.
When the subject of the elk came up, the tribes are adamant they had the right to hunt the animals, Redfield said.
“The Salish-Kootenai had eight of 10 tribal council members there,” Redfield said. “They pretty much said, ‘Hey, it’s our treaty rights and were going to keep them.'”
Sam Sheppard, a regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said there have been 50 or more elk killed by tribal hunters this season with 10 killed over the weekend. Sheppard referred all questions to Mike Volesky, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' chief of staff. Volesky did not respond to phone calls.
Redfield said he has suggested officials expand the area where the tribal hunt takes place, which would take some of the pressure off the animals.
The health of the elk population has been an issue this year, with FWP officials cutting back the weeks and the number of licenses available to nontribal hunters. Those cutbacks were made out of concern that the number of bulls available to populate the elk herd has fallen too low.
Hoppe said the tribal hunters should have to follow similar rules to protect the elk population.