« Return to this article

Know the West

How the Indians were set up to fail at bison management


I wasn’t born soon enough to be a cowboy on the West’s old open range. But for the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to help gather a herd of up to 500 bison every fall on 30 square miles of Montana prairie. I live on the reservation, though I’m not a Native American, and what I’ve seen on the ground contradicts the negative press that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes always seem to get.

My volunteer job was at the National Bison Range near Moiese in northwestern Montana. The bison range sits within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation. For the first eight years of my involvement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ran the refuge and the fall roundups, and the three-day event was made noisy and stressful by crashing gates and yelling. When the animals balked, the feds ran them harder. If they continued to balk, a jeep was brought in to chase the bison, sometimes ramming them with the jeep’s front bumper until the animals were subdued. Many times the bison arrived in the corrals with their tongues hanging out and legs quivering.

But for the last two roundups, members of the Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Nation maintained the refuge and were in charge of the bison under an agreement with the federal agency. The differences were startling. Each roundup began with a prayer from a tribal member that stressed concern for the animals’ safety. The Fish and Wildlife Service roundups had also begun with a prayer, but only for the safety of the workers.

The other difference was that the Tribes’ first roundup was completed with time to spare. And not because the Indians bulldozed the animals even harder than the feds had. Rather than just chasing the herd all over the landscape, the Indians were patient. One result was that several groups of stubborn and cantankerous bison eventually walked into the corrals. They weren’t pushed in; they just walked in. I was amazed. Nearly everyone who watched was impressed with the riders’ creativity. Nearly everyone.

The federal staff members on hand weren’t impressed. They looked on stony-faced. The federal attitude throughout was to hold back. All the training the Indians got came from one other experienced volunteer and myself. In other words, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handed the bison herd over to the Indians without any training. And this is tricky work. Decisions must be constantly made involving the welfare and safety of the animals. Often a large bull bison will enter a corral that already holds smaller cows or even calves. These animals must be separated to keep them from hurting or killing each other. I expected the federal staff to help out during the Indians’ initial work. Instead, I heard, “That’s the Tribes’ job.”

To be blunt, the Indians were set up to fail. On the first roundup, at least two other former volunteers were on hand, carrying clipboards. One of them asked me: “Where’s your clipboard?” and I realized he was there to evaluate the Indians’ work. He assumed I was there to do the same and looked confused when I said I was there to help.

In spite of that, as I said, the first roundup got done in two instead of three days. It sounds odd, but I think the animals noticed a difference, too. They seemed calmer, less belligerent. Yet no federal staffer ever said a good word to the Indians or to the volunteers who were there helping rather than “evaluating.” The second roundup took the full three days, but it also went well. And again the agency people remained aloof. Actually, “aloof” is a nice way of saying you could cut the tension with a knife. And once again, agency staffers refused to answer any questions.

Then came the news stories carrying allegations of harassment between the federal agency and the Tribes’ employees. I was surprised to learn that the federal employees felt harassed. From what I saw, the harassment ran the other way.

I can’t imagine what it was like for the tribal employees to work with censorious federal employees month after month. The behavior of the federal agents was condescending and paternal; some would call it shameful. In the end, the Fish and Wildlife Agency charged that the Indians had made all sorts of mistakes feeding the bison and tending fences, and it ended the contact abruptly on Dec. 11, escorting out employees as if they were criminals.

Mistakes were made, but not by the Indians. Now, higher-ups in the Interior Department have intervened, saying that the Tribes deserve another chance to work with the bison. I agree, but this time let it be a fair chance.

Paul Bishop is an architect who lives in Polson, Montana.