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Rocky Boy plans bison, elk reserve

 


The tribal council passed the resolution in July, tribal clerk Janice Myers said.

The next step will be to develop a management plan for the reserve, tribal council vice chair Bruce Sunchild said today.

One potential obstacle to the reserve is Initiative 143, a ballot initiative passed two years ago that prohibits the issuance of new game farm licenses, the transfer of existing licenses, and the shooting of game farm animals for a fee.

Jane Roybal, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who has consulted with the tribe about its plans, said the law could affect the tribe's efforts to import elk.

Tribes are sovereign nations and control their own land, Roybal said, but the state could file an injunction to prevent elk from being moved to Rocky Boy from elsewhere in the state. Whether that happens, she said, would probably depend on how the tribe sets up its program, and whether the elk are intended primarily for tribal members or will be hunted by nontribal members as well.

Bison are not considered wildlife and are handled under different regulations, she said, so there are no potential problems with bringing bison to the reservation.

Tribal officials working on the project say they hope the reserve will be a tourist attraction.

Robert Belcourt said the reserve will be kept free of motorized vehicles. Tourists will be charged an admission fee.

During the winter a horse-drawn sleigh could take tourists into the reserve during feeding time, Top Sky said. It has not been decided how tourists would go through the reserve in the summer, he said.

Once the herd grows enough - to at least 400 buffalo - the reserve could be opened for hunting, he said.

The fencing and water will be provided by the bison cooperative, Belcourt said.

Jim Good, curriculum development training facilitator at the bison cooperative, said tribes generally pay for the initial setup themselves, but that they can apply for a competitive grant to pay for things like fencing and vehicles.

DuBray said the difficulty with setting up a reserve is not necessarily the logistics, but balancing a tribe's cultural relationship with the bison to their economic relationship.

"A lot of times the cultural relationship takes time," he said. "The tribe has to re-establish and restore their spiritual relationship with the buffalo. Sometimes they don't anticipate the difficulty of that."

If that relationship is not restored before the animals are utilized economically, sometimes the tribal membership is offended, he said.

"It also requires all the membership relearning a lot of things that were set aside or forgotten," he said, adding that those things vary widely from tribe to tribe.

The last time Rocky Boy attempted to raise a bison herd was in the late 1960s, Belcourt said. The tribe had about 50 buffalo, but the unit was too small to hold them, he said. The animals were breaking out of the fences, and the tribe sold them in order to buy cattle, he said.

The Intertribal Bison Cooperative has a membership of 51 tribes from 16 states and a collective herd of more than 8,000 bison, according to the organization's Web site.

Member tribes in Montana include the Crow, the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Fort Peck Tribes.

In the future, visitors to Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation may be able to see and even hunt animals they would be hard-pressed to find there today: bison and elk.

Robert Belcourt, the tribal natural resources director, said today the tribe is planning a 1,700-acre game reserve for bison, elk, and possibly deer and antelope. They would be put in a fenced area around the base of Square Butte 5 miles east of Box Elder.

"I think if we do have a game reserve there'd be a lot of spinoffs from it," Belcourt said, including tourism, economic development, jobs, and meat for tribal members.

The land is now leased from the tribe to graze cattle. Belcourt said the person using the land, whom he declined to identify, has been approached about the possibility of an exchange for land elsewhere, and is receptive to the idea.

Initially the reserve would be used for tourism, but eventually could be open for hunting once the herd grew enough, said Leland Top Sky, the tribe's fish and wildlife supervisor.

"It's kind of a win-win situation for the Rocky Boy tribe," Top Sky said. "We would not only have a tourist site, maybe somewhere down the road we'd be able to hunt some of the animals."

Top Sky said it will probably be two to three years before the reserve could open.

The tribe has applied for membership in the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, which distributes surplus bison from national parks to member tribes, Top Sky said.

Top Sky said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a similar program it runs to give away elk, and that the tribe would also like to put elk in the reserve.

Belcourt said the tribe has also requested the service's help to put a management plan together.

Fred DuBray, executive director of the bison cooperative, said today the tribe has submitted its application and fees, and that the only thing the co-op needs is proof that the tribal council has adopted a resolution stating its intent to join the co-op.

Once that's received, the tribe will be admitted in January, he said, and can begin receiving animals as soon as the facilities are set up to receive them.

 

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