This winter, the Blackfeet Nation will become the sixth tribe to join the annual bison hunts outside Yellowstone National Park.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the state of Montana formally recognized the Blackfeet Nation’s tribal treaty rights to hunt bison, based on historical records. The recognition comes almost two years after the Blackfeet first petitioned for hunting rights. From the Chronicle:
The tribe will join hunters licensed through the state of Montana and tribes in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Harry Barnes, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said the tribe’s hunt will begin [February 5] and run through the following Sunday. A total of 80 hunters have received permits through the tribe — all of which sold out in a matter of hours.
The Blackfeet Nation will join five other tribes: the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Nez Perce Tribe and the Yakama Nation.
Hunting forms one part of bison management around Yellowstone. Under the Interagency Bison Management Plan, state, federal and tribal officials are required to cull a certain number of bison each year.
According to the Chronicle, tribal hunters work under tribal hunting regulations, which may differ from state hunting regulations. Nonetheless, agencies do their best to try and coordinate. To wit, four game wardens from the Blackfeet Nation will travel down with hunters to oversee things.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks operations chief Mike Volesky told the Chronicle he doesn’t “think anybody is tickled” about permitting more hunters in the area outside Yellowstone, but added that tribal treaty rights predate and outweigh state regulations.
According to the Chronicle, Barnes initiated the recognition process in February 2016, when he sent a letter to Montana Governor Steve Bullock. The Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs’ director Jason Smith responded by asking for historical evidence. What followed was a walk through over 150 years of history. From the Chronicle:
Barnes responded with a letter that offered a historical account of Blackfeet hunters using the area and language from the “Lamebull” treaty of 1855 that secured historic hunting and fishing rights for tribal members. The treaty language outlined the borders of a “common hunting ground” that included the area where bison are hunted and said the tribe should have “uninterrupted privileges” to hunt there for 99 years.
In response, Smith wrote that, based on the 99-year term, the Blackfeet’s right to hunt appeared to have expired in 1954. He asked for more information that would support the tribe’s argument.
Barnes said the “common hunting area” was about preventing tribal wars. He wrote in a letter sent this past December that the area was carved from Blackfeet territory to allow other tribes to hunt there for 99 years without starting a war with the Blackfeet.
The shared area was to exist for 99 years and then sole hunting rights would revert back to the Blackfeet, meaning the rights of other tribes’ to hunt there expired but the Blackfeet’s rights did not.
“Our rights down in Yellowstone are well documented,” he said. “We’ve been there forever and ever.”
The Chronicle adds that, so far, hunters have taken fewer than 100 bison.
The hunting and slaughter of bison has always elicited controversy, especially among animal rights groups and wild bison advocates. To that end, the future of bison management may be entering a new chapter following a court ruling late last week.
We reported a federal judge had sided with a coalition of environmental and conservation groups, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not properly considered two petitions to list Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act. The agency now has 90 days to review its decision and issue a new finding.
Placing bison on the Endangered Species List would, no doubt, put into question the future of operations at Stephens Creek, where bison are corralled before being shipped to slaughter—with their meat and hides subsequently distributed among Native American tribes.
It could also lead to a legal challenge against tribal hunting rights, since hunting is usually a prohibited activity against endangered species. There are exceptions, of course; you can hunt grizzly bears in Alaska, whereas protections are in place for grizzlies in most of the continental United States and Canada. Until recently, these protections extended to Yellowstone grizzlies.