Mike Nicholson has been hunting for years, entering the state’s drawing to be allowed to hunt more rare game, moose, mountain goats and big horn sheep for the past 20.
This year he went for one of the most sought-after tags, and threw his lot in with nearly 8,000 other applicants looking to hunt american bison.
He won one of the 44 tags available.
Of those 44 tags, according to Nicholson, 16 are given every year to tribes in the southern part of the state.
Then the remaining tags are split between two hunting districts near Yellowstone National Park, where the bison live and may be shot once they leave.
The two districts’ tags are split between three three-week-long hunting periods.
In what Nicholson said was less than a 1 in 10,000 chance, he was awarded the opportunity to hunt bison in the Gardiner area between Jan. 1 and 22.
“It was pretty slim,” Nicholson said. “Big time.”
He started planning the trip far in advance, to get a group of six friends together, with friends flying in from as far as St. Louis.
They planned on heading down around Jan. 7, and contacted a man in the area to keep an eye on what the bison were doing.
In recent years the bison hunts have been mostly uneventful. The season in 2009 was, as the only hunter to take a bison that year told the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks department’s magazine, “a one-shot season.”
Nicholson said that the bison recently have had no problem finding food within the park. There just hasn’t been harsh enough weather.
This year the weather has been worse, which was better for Nicholson.
As it snowed and melted and refroze into a thick ice layer, that was then again snowed on, the bison of Yellowstone had trouble getting to the ground, so they left and grazed the surrounding area.
Nicholson’s contact in Gardiner said he’d seen them out, and the trip should be fruitful.
When Nicholson and his five friends got to Gardner and were ready to hunt, they were told that Salish Kootenai tribal hunters had taken down two bison already that morning, and his contact didn’t know where to find any more.
Nicholson was upset.
They drove around until around 10 a.m. and saw a few protesters from the Buffalo Field Campaign keeping an eye on hunters, and eventually a forest ranger.
Nicholson asked the ranger if he’d seen anything.
The ranger told him that he’d seen three bison wandering through some woods off the road.
So Nicholson and his friends got out of their truck and walked off into the woods. They didn’t see anything.
After months of planning, coordinating the schedules of his friends and driving hours down to Gardiner, all to have the bison they came for shot by other hunters, Nicholson was frustrated and went off by himself.
About a half-mile out he saw bison sign in the snow, and no human tracks. This was exciting.
As he continued, one of his friend’s caught up along a ridge.
“The ridge ended in another 80 yards,” Nicholson said. “I was joking and said they’d probably see them right at the end of that ridge.”
Then, when he cleared the ridge, he saw through some trees the three bison the ranger told him about — two bulls and cow.
He moved around them to get a shot from about 45 yards that would preserve his trophy skull, he said.
Nicholson’s 7mm bullet penetrating his bull’s torso, but it just became annoyed.
“I shot it right in the heart,” Nicholson said. “It reacted like it got stung by a bee.”
The bull turned and charged at him where he was sitting in three to four feet of snow.
During that brief moment, while watching the bull run at him and hearing his friend yelling from the tree line, Nicholson fired two more times into the brown hulk before it came to a stop about 10 yards away.
Aware of the bison’s resilience, Nicholson and his friend decided not to get near it, but rather to head toward his friends, his truck and his equipment.
As they were gearing up for arduous work at hand, more Salish Kootenai hunters arrived, and Nicholson told them about the other bull and cow that were still in the woods.
Protesters also showed up and hopped on their cross-country skis before disappearing into the woods, Nicholson presumes to record what he and indians were doing.
Nicholson, his friends and the Salish Kootenai hunters, who had shot the other two bison, worked until sundown to disassemble their bison kills. He said the snow was so deep that they set their tools on top like a shelf.
Using the other hunter’s snowmobile and Nicholson’s sled, the men worked together to get out of there by the time the sun went down and a blizzard hit.
“It took six of us five hours to get it processed,” Nicholson said. “One person was just sharpening knives constantly. I would guess that thing was right up close to 2,000 pounds. Those things are gigantuous.”
After the planning, the drawing and the trip all came together, Nicholson has his intact skull for his home and the hump for his office. He said the experience has changed hunting for him.
“It was a total learning experience that’ll make deer and antelope look totally different.”