Friday, April 27, 2012
Published: April 26, 2012
WOLF POINT, Mont. — Sioux and Assiniboine tribe members wailed a welcome song last month as around 60 bison from Yellowstone National Park stormed onto a prairie pasture that had not felt a bison’s hoof for almost 140 years.
That historic homecoming came just 11 days after 71 pureblood bison, descended from one of Montana’s last wild herds, were released nearby onto untilled grassland owned by a charity with a vision of building a haven for prairie wildlife. Some hunters and conservationists are now calling for bison to be reintroduced to a million-acre wildlife refuge spanning this remote region.
“Populations of all native Montana wildlife have been allowed to rebound except bison; it’s time to take care of them like they once took care of us,” said Robert Magnan, 58, director of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation’s Fish and Game Department, who will oversee the transplanted Yellowstone bison program.
But with several groups now navigating a complex and contentious path to return bison to these plains, agribusiness is fighting back. Many farmers and ranchers fear that bison, particularly those from Yellowstone, might be mismanaged and damage private property, and worry that they would compete for grass with their own herds.
“Bison are a romantic notion, but they don’t belong today,” said Curt McCann, 46, a Chinook rancher who this month drove four hours to a public meeting in Jordan to speak against bison reintroduction.
When the explorer Meriwether Lewis followed the Missouri River through this region in 1805, he came across bison herds he described as “innumerable.” Just eight decades later, a young Theodore Roosevelt noted that all that remained were “countless” bleached skulls covering the Montana badlands.
Scientists estimate that tens of millions of bison once roamed America, but by 1902 there were only 23 known survivors in the wild, all hiding from poachers in a remote Yellowstone valley. For decades, attempts to transplant bison from the rebounding Yellowstone herd were thwarted, despite requests from tribes to steward some of the animals.
“I call them my brothers and sisters because they are a genetic link to the same ones my ancestors hunted,” said Tote Gray Hawk, 54, a Sioux who has brought the Fort Peck bison hay and water each day since their arrival. Their meat, lower in cholesterol than beef, will feed elderly tribe members and their skulls will be used in traditional sun dance ceremonies, he said.
The last hunt for indigenous bison on the Fort Peck reservation happened in 1873. In the 1880s, hundreds of tribe members starved to death on the barren land. Around them homesteaders from Europe began wresting an agricultural living from this windswept expanse of rolling amber in northeast Montana. Most of the neighboring farmers and ranchers today are descendants of those pioneers, and they safeguard their traditions with generational grit.
“Bison is a big issue that could really impact our livelihood,” said Brett Dailey, 52, who ranches near Jordan.
Today there are three million cattle in Montana and agribusiness is the state’s biggest industry, but not a single bison roams free. A 2011 survey commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation showed that a majority of state residents support reintroducing huntable bison to the vast Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, similar to a Utah herd created in 1941 from the last few bison allowed out of Yellowstone.
“Within this sea of agriculture there is room for small islands of conservation,” said Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Reserve, the charity that brought the group of genetically pure bison back to a pasture just north of the refuge.
The arrival of Yellowstone bison was welcome news around the troubled Fort Peck reservation. When the first calf was born on Sunday, a rust-colored baby bull, tribal flags still hung at half-staff for a teenage boy who had committed suicide days earlier. Rates of poverty, unemployment, disease and addiction hover stubbornly above national averages here.
Census data shows that around northeast Montana, a prairie expanse almost the size of Indiana, most county populations peaked in the early 1900s and have since dropped by almost half.
The region’s fastest growing economic engine, oil production, is proving a mixed blessing. In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency reported that toxic chemicals from nearby drilling contaminated drinking water supplies for Poplar, a reservation town of around 3,000. This year a schoolteacher from Sidney, near the North Dakota border, was kidnapped during her morning jog and murdered. The suspects are two Colorado roughnecks.
“These bison represent healing,” said Iris Greybull, 62, of Poplar.
The bison debate has dredged up old tensions between tribes and their neighbors. Before Ms. Greybull, a Sioux, spoke in favor of the animals last fall at a fractious meeting in Glasgow, dozens of farmers and ranchers walked out in protest.
She and other tribe members say they see an ugly double standard in the fact that there are more than 130 private bison ranches in the state, including one belonging to the mogul Ted Turner housing dozens of controversial Yellowstone bison, and yet only the Fort Peck herd has been visited by protesters.
But some say the bison on the ranches do not pose the threat that the wild ones do.
“Unless they have the German wall and a moat with a bunch of crocodiles and piranhas, they’re not going to contain those woolly tanks,” said State Senator John Brenden of nearby Scobey, who has long done battle on the bison issue in the state Legislature.
Around a century ago some Yellowstone bison contracted disease from domestic livestock and in recent decades thousands have been slaughtered in an effort to protect ranchers’ herds. At the direction of Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a few of these bison were quarantined for years and certified healthy. Some may soon go to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, about 170 miles west of Fort Peck, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by opponents.
“I took a lot of arrows for this, but it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “If you want to get into a fistfight in Montana, go into a bar and share your opinion about bison or wolves.”
Friday, April 13, 2012
Published: April 13, 2012
In one of the largest financial settlements made to American Indian tribes, the federal government said this week that it had ended dozens of lawsuits by agreeing to pay tribes more than $1 billion for the mismanagement of funds and natural resources that the government holds in trust.
The Justice Department announced on Wednesday that it had agreed to pay 41 tribes — many in the Western United States — a total of about $1.023 billion because the Interior and Treasury Departments had failed to adequately oversee concessions on Indian lands from companies that exploit a wide variety of resources, including minerals, timber, oil and gas, dating back more than 100 years in some cases.
The Interior Department, which manages about 56 million acres for Indian tribes and oversees more than 100,000 leases on those lands, has long been accused by tribes of doing a poor job of keeping track of the tribal funds it maintains and of not being diligent in collecting fees from companies that hold leases on reservations and elsewhere in Indian country. In addition to administering the land leases, the Interior Department manages about 2,500 trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.
“These settlements fairly and honorably resolve historical grievances over the accounting and management of tribal trust funds, trust lands and other nonmonetary trust resources that, for far too long, have been a source of conflict between Indian tribes and the United States,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.
The Interior Department says it has developed better accounting systems to avoid future problems.
About 60 other similar lawsuits by tribes against the United States have not been settled, the government said.
The amount each tribe will receive is based on a formula that takes into account how much land and money the government held in trust, and the value of the concessions. Tribes holding oil and gas concessions, which are usually of far greater value, generally will receive the most from the settlement.
The Osage tribe of Oklahoma, for example — because of its extensive oil and gas reserves — will get $380 million. The tribe has about 16,000 members.
Among the other 41 tribes receiving money are the Minnesota Chippewa tribe, which has about 40,000 members and will get about $2 million; the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington State, which has about 10,000 members and will get $193 million; and the Nez Perce tribe, which has 4,000 members on its Idaho reservation, and will receive $34 million.
Many tribes say they have not decided how to spend the money. In most cases, tribal councils — the elected governing bodies — will have the ultimate authority. Tribes are variously considering making monthly payments to members, establishing loan programs, financing social service groups, improving infrastructure on reservations and undertaking environmental initiatives.
Heather Keen, a spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, said that while the tribe was doing well economically — it generates $309 million annually in economic activity, including at a casino resort — the $18 million the 2,000-member tribe will receive represents an important boost.
Large swaths of the tribe’s land, she said, were damaged by clear-cutting in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some tribes will get the money as early as next week, arriving at a time when many reservations rank among the nation’s poorest places. About half of the people on the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, for example, live in poverty. In the 1990s, the tribe considered storing nuclear waste on the reservation because members would have earned about $250 million in payments over 40 years. Now the tribe, which has about 4,000 members, will get $33 million from the settlement.
Chief James Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene tribe, said that despite longstanding tensions between tribes and the federal government, the settlement represented the fairness with which the Obama administration had treated American Indians.
“They have kept their promise to Native Americans to ensure we are heard in Washington,” Mr. Allan said. “He has not made treaties with us, but he gave us his word. And his word has been golden.”
President Obama signed legislation in December 2010 authorizing payment for a similar, though far larger, settlement for Indians. That money, totaling $3.4 billion, has not been distributed because of several pending lawsuits.