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National Bison Range May Return to Tribes

Amy MartinComment

This story was reported for Montana Public Radio by Amy Martin.

After more than 100 years of federal control, the lands of the National Bison Range may be returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Last week, the tribes released draft legislation that would transfer authority over the range from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the CSKT.  

At the top of Ravalli Hill, about 40 miles north of Missoula, you can look right into the National Bison Range from an overlook on the side of Highway 93. You can’t always see bison from that spot, but on the day I met Rich Janssen, head of the natural resources department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, we got lucky.

"..seeing the mighty bison, the American bison, commonly called buffalo by the Europeans, que-quay in the Salish language."

Tourists making the trek between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone were stopping to photograph the herd, including the red calves who hopped about while their moms grazed.

"Yeah, that’s a prehistoric animal that thrives, and is very hearty, and obviously was not driven to extinction like they tried, and you can see how well they’re doing right now," Janssen says. "It’s pretty neat to see that animal walking along the side hills of the Bison Range, that you see them grazing, nonchalantly."

In the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, the United States promised the Flathead Reservation would be the permanent homeland for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people. But in 1908, the federal government carved 18,000 acres out of the reservation to form the National Bison Range. Since the mid-1990s, the tribes have been seeking a larger role in the management of the range. And this past February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signaled their willingness to return control of the lands to the tribes.

"You know the time is now, it’s a long time coming for this to happen and I’m pretty proud to say that I’m going to be part of history," says Janssen.

Rich Janssen

Rich Janssen

Last week, the CSKT released a draft of a bill which would return the range to its pre-1908 status as part of the reservation. The bill would continue bison conservation and public access, while giving the tribes management authority. Janssen says his department is more than ready.

"Our wildlife program is top-notch. I would put our wildlife program, our department, at any level of any other wildlife program within the state. Even nationally. We have the tools and the capabilities to manage this bison range in perpetuity, and I think when that occurs, this will undoubtedly improve what you see at the bison range at this time."

But not everyone supports the proposed transfer. Skip Palmer worked in the maintenance department at the National Bison Range for 16 years.

"Loved it. How could a person not love it? You know, you’re working with wildlife. I spent 16 years basically, amongst other things, chasing bison on horseback. Round ‘em up every year."

Skip Palmer

Skip Palmer

Palmer is one of 10 co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. He says PEER is opposed to transferring control to the tribes for several reasons, including his fear that the land will not remain a bison range.

"There’s nothing out there at this point that tells the tribe we want a guarantee from you that you’re going to keep it a bison range ... nope, no guarantee.

The draft legislation proposed by the tribes states that the lands will be managed "solely for the bison, wildlife and other natural resources".

Palmer: "I don’t care what they said."
Martin: "You don’t believe them?"
Palmer: "No."
Palmer says he joined the PEER lawsuit because he believes legislation should not even be proposed unless a full environmental impact statement is completed first.

"They’re introducing something that’s illegal. It shouldn’t go to Congress because it’s illegal to even get that point."

The courts will decide whether or not an environmental impact statement is required: that question may come down to technicalities of who is proposing the legislation – the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the tribes.

Rachel Carrol-Rivas of the Montana Human Rights Network says opposition to the transfer of the bison range did not begin with environmental concerns, but rather, with racial fear.

"There’s a history of anti-Indian sentiment and active organizing in this community and on these issues."

Carrol-Rivas says the Montana Human Rights Network documented this history in a report from January 2000 called "Drumming Up Resentment."

"And a lot of it centered on the anti-Indian movement against the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe particularly. And touched on the early stages of the opposition to the National Bison Range and that continues to be a concern for us."

Carrol-Rivas says the anti-Indian movement in the Flathead Valley is not as strong as it once was, but that it tends to get re-ignited when the tribes make advancements like the Flathead water compact, or this proposed transfer.

Paula Dinerstein, lead counsel for PEER, doesn’t buy it.

"I think groups are suggesting that because they don’t want to deal with the merits of the case, they want to scream racism instead, and I don’t think there’s any basis for it," Dinerstein said.

Martin: "Well one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Skip Palmer, on his Facebook page right now has a white power symbol."
Dinerstein: "Well, I don’t know anything, I haven’t seen his Facebook page, but I do know Mr. Palmer, and I know he has worked very closely with tribal people who are employed at the range."

Palmer actually left the National Bison Range in part over employment disputes that stemmed from sharing management duties with the tribes.

The Montana Human Rights Network says other plaintiffs have ties to anti-Indian groups as well. 

Back at the overlook, however, the visitors who have stopped to watch the bison seem to be less concerned with who is in charge of the land, and more interested in the animals themselves – and not only the bison.

We’re not used to seeing signs that say “danger, rattlesnakes," Jane Heppell said. She and Bob Heppell are from Norfolk, England.

"People are always going to object about something anyway," Bob Heppell says, "but give them chance to have a go, and good luck to them, that’s what I say."

Jane and Bob Heppel

Jane and Bob Heppel

The CSKT have formed a Bison Range Working Group to support the proposed transfer. They are accepting comments on their draft legislation through June 24. The lawsuit by PEER is currently pending in federal court.



Alternative to Bison Slaughter?

Amy MartinComment

Bison-watchers around Montana are on alert. Yellowstone National Park has proposed a new plan that could help reduce the number of wild bison shipped to slaughter every year. Public comment on the plan ended in February, and park officials say a final decision will be issued soon.  

Here's our background story on the so-called "quarantine plan," which aired on Montana Public Radio yesterday

Jody Lyle of Yellowstone National Park gives a tour of the facility where bison are captured before being sent to slaughter.

Jody Lyle of Yellowstone National Park gives a tour of the facility where bison are captured before being sent to slaughter.

Bison are moved through a series of corrals before being tested, tagged and sent to meat processing facilities.

Bison are moved through a series of corrals before being tested, tagged and sent to meat processing facilities.

Bison on All Things Considered

Amy MartinComment

My story about the bison of Yellowstone National Park aired last night on All Things Considered. An extended look at the story was aired on Montana Public Radio as well.

I haven't made an official tally yet, but I'm sure I've interviewed over a dozen people about bison in the last few months, and I have more interviews scheduled. Most if not all of these voices will be heard on Threshold -- my new podcast, due out next fall.

But a news story is really different from a podcast episode. You can't put a dozen voices into three-and-a-half minutes. And you can't tell the whole story -- only one little slice of it. So from my perspective, the piece airing tonight is an appetizer. A little teaser that will (hopefully) get this issue on the radar and pique listeners' curiosity about what will happen next.

Pictures of some of the people (and bison) featured in these first stories are below. And if you're w
ondering why you should care about YNP bison, I made a quick little overview here.

Rick Wallen, Bison Project Leader, Yellowstone National Park

Rick Wallen, Bison Project Leader, Yellowstone National Park



Alan Redfield, rancher, Paradise Valley

Alan Redfield, rancher, Paradise Valley

Karrie Taggert, bison advocate, Horse Butte

Karrie Taggert, bison advocate, Horse Butte

You can find more pictures here.

So, the appetizer has been served. Now it's time for me to dive into making the main course. This isn't just one story, and it's not just about bison. It's about wildness and worldview, differing interpretations of the past and alternate visions for the future. Passions run high on all sides.

At the center of it all, there are these huge creatures, surviving brutal winters, rearing their young, chomping on grass, stubbornly keeping themselves alive. Five hundred years ago, there were 30 to 60 million bison. A century ago, there were 23. Now, there are 5,000 or so. What does the future hold for them? Some of the people pictured here will help answer that question this year. And you'll have a chance to weigh in too. I'll be tracking it every step of the way, and bringing you the story in all its complexity. I really can't wait to introduce you to all the fascinating characters I've met.

YNP Bison: Why Should You Care?

Amy Martin1 Comment

There are lots of reasons to be interested in the fate of the Yellowstone bison herd. Here's a very quick overview: 

1. The Yellowstone bison herd was the only wild herd in the U.S. to survive westward expansion. There were 23 wild bison left in the country in 1901. They were protected inside Yellowstone, and today's herd of close to 5,000 are their descendants.

2. These bison are "genetically pure" -- their DNA shows no introgression with cattle. Most bison in the country today have some cattle genes.

3. Other wild bison herds were killed off and then re-introduced later. These animals have had a continuous connection to the greater Yellowstone area for millennia.

4. The Yellowstone bison herd is several times larger than any other conservation herd in the U.S. (such as the Henry Mountains herd in Utah or the Wind Cave herd in South Dakota).

5. The herd has recovered to the extent that they're wild migratory instincts are waking up.

6. Many of the animals in the Yellowstone bison herd have brucellosis – a bacterial disease which both elk and bison in the greater Yellowstone area originally contracted from cattle. This is one of the reasons their urge to migrate out of Yellowstone National Park has been highly controversial.

YNP Bison Lawsuit

Amy MartinComment

Yellowstone National Park Sued Over Access to Culling Operations

Listen to the story as broadcast on Montana Public Radio.

by Amy Martin

A bison advocate and a journalist are suing the National Park Service over access to Yellowstone National Park’s bison capture facility.

Stephany Seay of the Buffalo Field Campaign and freelance journalist Christopher Ketcham filed suit in U.S. District Court in Wyoming yesterday. The lawsuit claims the Park Service is violating the First Amendment by limiting citizen access to its bison capture facility, known as Stephens Creek. The facility is located inside the northern border of the park, a few miles from the town of Gardiner.

The first step in the ship-to-slaughter process is to herd Yellowstone's wild bison into these large corrals at the Stephens Creek facility.

The first step in the ship-to-slaughter process is to herd Yellowstone's wild bison into these large corrals at the Stephens Creek facility.

Jody Lyle of Yellowstone National Park said the Park Service doesn’t want to send bison to slaughter.

"We don’t want to be in the business of handling wildlife in this way," she said.

But, Lyle says the Park Service is under a court-mediated settlement with the State of Montana that forces them to cull bison which try to migrate out of the park.

Jody Lyle of Yellowstone National Park led a tour of the Stephens Creek facility on January 20. Behind her is the squeeze chute where bison are tagged and tested before being sent to slaughter.

Jody Lyle of Yellowstone National Park led a tour of the Stephens Creek facility on January 20. Behind her is the squeeze chute where bison are tagged and tested before being sent to slaughter.

Last week, Yellowstone National Park hosted a tour of the facility, which is currently empty. They also plan to hold two public viewing dates after bison capture operations begin. But plaintiff Stephany Seay calls these plans, "token tours which will be used to whitewash the operation". The Park Service says access to the large corral is limited because of safety concerns, but Seay does not believe there are any true safety threats to observers.

The state and federal agencies that cooperatively manage Yellowstone bison have set a goal of culling 600 to 900 animals from the herd this year through a combination of hunting and ship-to-slaughter. The Park Service says approximately 200 bison have been killed in the hunt so far.

Yellowstone Bison - January 2016

Amy MartinComment

I'm in Yellowstone National Park reporting on bison issues for NPR and for my forthcoming podcast, Threshold.

So...what are "bison issues?"

In a nutshell: after being restored from near-extinction, Yellowstone bison have now recovered to the extent that they need to migrate out of the park to find food in the winter. Because many (but not all) local landowners do not want bison on their property, eating their grass and potentially spreading disease to their cattle, many of the animals are killed when they leave the park. There are many who say these conflicts can be mitigated -- they believe bison and cattle can co-exist. But the will to make that happen seems to be lacking. Park officials say between 600 and 900 bison may be killed when they leave Yellowstone National Park this year. Bison advocates says this is way too many killed. Bison opponents say it's not nearly enough.

I'm here to explore this issue from all sides. I'm talking to ranchers, bison advocates, two of the preeminent bison biologists in the world (Rick Wallen and Dustin Ranglack), park visitors, Native Americans from various tribes -- everyone who will talk to me. 


I already knew I was passionate about telling this story, but now I really can't wait to start crafting everything I've been learning and absorbing into what I hope will be a substantive, fair, scientifically sound and emotionally empathetic series, to be released as season one of Threshold next fall.

In the meantime, here are some photos from the week.

~ Amy

P.S. This kind of investigative journalism takes a lot of time. If you'd like to support this work, here's how you can help.

Three Bison Wounded in Hunt Outside Yellowstone

Amy MartinComment

by Amy Martin, 1/22/16

Two bison cows and one calf were wounded during the Montana bison hunt today on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

Bison hunters here in Gardiner gather at Beattie Gulch, just over the boundary line ofYellowstone National Park. Once the bison cross that invisible border, they can be legally hunted.

This afternoon, two cows and one calf were wounded by gunshots during the hunt. The three injured animals ran with their herd back into Yellowstone, where hunting is not allowed. Rangers tried to find the animals and put them down, but at this time only two of the three wounded bison had been killed.

“It’s unfortunate but it does happen. It happens with other species throughout the year, as well, too.”

Brian Helms is a Yellowstone National Park ranger.

“It’s just the nature of the beast hunting that close to a national park boundary.”

The bison hunt has been criticized by many groups for violating fair chase ethics. Sam Estrada of the Buffalo Field Campaign calls it “a canned hunt.”

“I mean any animal that we hunt – elk, deer – are all truly wild, and can go where they want. But we’re hunting an animal here that doesn’t even have the opportunity to roam like a wild animal should,” says Estrada.

Several different Native American tribes and the State of Montana are currently running bison hunts in the Gardiner basin. It is unclear exactly which hunters fired the shots which wounded the animals today.


A Royal Mess

Amy MartinComment

Something about the phrase "royalty payments" makes your eyes glaze over, doesn't it?

That's why I was surprised when I tuned in to a congressional hearing about royalty payments a few weeks ago. People were pounding fists on tables, taking each other to task -- really getting into it! I stood in front of my computer thinking: I've never seen anyone get this excited about accounting.

Because that's what the controversy over royalty payments is all about, really. How we account for the resources extracted from our public lands. And how much we're allowed to know about it.

Curiousity piqued, I decided to dive in. I recruited Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams to help spice up the story a bit.

I do hope you'll give this Inside Energy story a listen, because a lot of money is at stake. Your money.

Which makes the topic a leetle more interesting, don't you think?

~ Amy



Survey says....

Amy MartinComment
Cookie ingredients await!

Cookie ingredients await!

The drawing for the home-baked batch of cookies was held in a top secret, highly professional location last Saturday night! And the winner of the cookies is...


Congratulations Daurine! You'll be receiving your cookies before Thanksgiving!

Thanks so much to everyone who participated in the survey! Working in a vacuum doesn't work -- we need feedback to make this podcast great. Thank you to the 32 people who spent some of your precious time and brainpower helping to shape this project.

Here are the survey results, with notes from me (producer Amy Martin) below.

Do you like the name?

Multiple people said they liked "Threshold" better than "The Threshold." I agree. Strongly. I added the "The" to try to help differentiate it from other Thresholds out there (podcasts, songs, band names, books). But Threshold without the "The" was my initial gut instinct. Pondering...

I asked for opinions from a few people who didn't participate in the survey as well. I didn't track those conversations as carefully as I should have, but I believe about four people expressed that they didn't like the name, and about four expressed that they did. Those who didn't like it had various reasons for their feelings -- there wasn't one standard "we don't like this because X" thing happening. Those who did like it seemed to be drawn to it for the same reasons I am -- because it evokes transition, but without defining that transition as either positive or negative, and because it points to inherent limits of systems or processes. Webster says: "the point or level at which something begins or changes."

More on the name in a separate post. On to the next survey question:

Do you want to help create this?

I'm thrilled to have heard from some folks who are motivated to take part in various ways. You'll be hearing from me!

Are you intrigued by the concept?

OK, so that's, like, super affirming.

Thank you!!!

The finished product, delivered to Daurine on November 24.

The finished product, delivered to Daurine on November 24.