‘This Is Good Medicine’: Tribes Work Together in Annual Bison Hunt

Some of the photos in this story depict graphic scenes of hunting carnage. Reader discretion is advised.


(CN) — The herd of bison fed quietly along the dirt roadside Saturday, just inside the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

About 100 yards away, a group of about 50 Native Americans watched the bison intently. With rifles of all calibers slung over their shoulders, they waited for the big animals to cross the dirt road onto National Forest Land, where the bison could be shot.

Pickup trucks with license plates from around the country lined both sides of the narrow dirt road. Some of the men sat in pickup trucks, idling their engines to keep warm, while young boys sat on tailgates, sharpening knives. They knew the killing would start soon.

The bison, meanwhile, would step across the road, only to be herded back to the park by an unknowing passing motorist. The entire mood of the group of men shifted as the bison crossed back and forth.

After about six hours, the herd of 18 bison had crossed in singles and in pairs and was now making its way up a long, flat ridge where bison carcasses lay strewn about from previous days’ killings.

Hunters wait for a herd of bison to cross onto National Forest land near Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 2020. This herd was killed moments later where they stood. (David Reese / CNS)

The men grouped together to listen to a tribal game officer from the Nez Perce tribe tell them how the hunt was going to take place. As there were only 18 bison, but about 50 men, the tribal members who had come from across the country decided how the bison would be distributed. One elderly man was given the chance to lead the pack of men up the ridge. He would shoot first.

The men moved in a group slowly up the ridge while the bison grazed nonchalantly just 40 yards away, oblivious to the dead carcasses dotted around the sagebrush and open grass. The tailgate-party atmosphere of a few minutes ago had now turned serious, sullen and quiet.

As soon as the bison had moved past fluorescent signs dictating where the shooting could take place, the elderly man raised his rifle and fired, dropping his buffalo. The other bison stood nearby, nonplussed.

The other shooters fired quickly and the bison dropped where they had stood. In less than 30 seconds it was over; the herd of bison lay dead in the snow, some still writhing from injuries while battle cries and shouts echoed across the still winter landscape.

The men took to their task immediately, skinning and butchering the enormous animals, while a few women shot photos with cellphones. The snow turned red, and a small creek running with snowmelt carried the bison blood down the hill.

One man who came from a tribe in Idaho cut out the eyeball of the bison bull he was butchering, “out of respect, so the animal could not watch,” the man said.

Saturday’s bison killing by Native American tribal members was part of a management effort to reduce the animal’s numbers in Yellowstone National Park.

Bison cross out of Yellowstone National Park (on the left side of the road) onto National Forest land. In about an hour, these bison and 15 others were killed by Native Americans in an organized hunt. (David Reese / CNS)

The culling of bison that wander outside of Yellowstone National Park started in the late 1990s, after the state of Montana sued the National Park Service over allowing bison to roam outside the park and possibly infect nearby domestic cattle with brucellosis.

The spread of disease has never happened, according to the park, but the shooting of bison outside the park has carried on ever since, mostly in late winter when the bison move out of the park to find better feed.

The park service has a goal of about 3,000 bison for Yellowstone Park. In 2019, the agency counted about 4,900 bison.

The park service uses three strategies to keep the population figures within the 3,000-animal range: tribal and public hunts outside the park; sending bison to slaughter, with the meat and hides going to tribes and putting bison in quarantine to test them for disease, then shipping the bison to tribal lands. Ninety-three bison were sent to the Fort Peck Reservation of Montana in 2019.

A small neighborhood of about a dozen homes sits just 300 yards away from where the killing takes place each year near Beattie Gulch, just north of Gardiner, Montana. The killing field has led to one neighbor filing a lawsuit in October 2019 against the National Park Service over the handling of the hunt.

The lawsuit’s plaintiff, Neighbors Against Bison Slaughter, is seeking injunctive relief and a restraining order to stop the killings. In its answer to the complaint Feb. 20, the Department of Interior said the plaintiff had “failed to exhaust administrative remedies over the hunts and that plaintiffs lack standing.”

According to the lawsuit, federal agencies in 2013 began allowing four Native American tribes to shoot bison in Beattie Gulch near Yellowstone National Park. By 2019, the number of tribes had expanded to six.

Tribal members from the Nez Perce tribe, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation are allowed to shoot the bison. Tribal members represented last Saturday came from as far away as Wisconsin and Oregon.

Lee Whiteplume of Idaho harvested a big bison bull Saturday. He meticulously cared for his bison, wrapping the quarters in cotton game bags. He brought two other men with him to help with the arduous task of skinning and quartering the bison. Children walked among their elders, inspecting the bison — animals that for centuries have fed and clothed Native Americans. Tribes that were once sworn enemies worked together — from the shooting to the harvest.

The bison hunt near Corwin Springs, Montana, takes place within 300 yards from these homes. Neighbors voice concern about the gut piles left over from the killing, and a lawsuit has been filed by one of the neighbors over the safety of the hunt. (David Reese / CNS)

“This is good medicine,” Whiteplume said while hunched over his big bison, helping skin the big animal. “I think it’s only right that of all people on planet Earth we get to exercise our aboriginal rights by being able to harvest one of these animals.”

Some of the neighbors, though, don’t see it that way.

According to the lawsuit, “The dramatically expanded and escalating tribal hunt has forced neighbors — some only a few hundred yards away — to bear the economic costs and physical risks of the slaughter; the hunt causes extreme noise; and, perhaps worst of all, the hunt leaves thousands of pounds of rotting, potentially disease-laden bison carcasses littered across this small geographic area.”

The Neighbors’ lawsuit claims that the number of bison killed by native Americans and non-natives at Beattie Gulch has increased from 59 in 2007 to 389 in 2016-2017. Last year about 300 bison were killed there, according to Gregg Todd, a game warden with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, who was on the scene Saturday.

Todd said this year’s mild winter has led to far fewer bison coming out of Yellowstone National Park.

Kerry Gunther, who lives about 400 yards away, walked among the carcasses Sunday.

Gunther, who has applied for one of the non-tribal permits to shoot bison, said he’s not against the culling of the herd, but he thinks the government agencies and tribes could do more to reduce the eyesore of the hundreds of bison carcasses left to rot in the sun long after the shooters are gone.

“I’m not against hunting and I’m not against culling bison,” Gunther said, “but the shooting line forms right here … and the bison die right here.”

Gunther said the eagles and birds that feed on the carrion often land in the big cottonwood trees at his home and drop pieces of meat into his yard.

“It’s amazing how big a chunk of meat an eagle can carry,” he said. “It’s not fun having bison udders in your yard.”

The gut piles from the shootings are concentrated in a 20- to 30-acre area on a bench overlooking the Yellowstone River and in plain view of a county road, where tourists drive by, hoping to catch a glimpse of wildlife. Gunther recommends the shooting be moved at least a few hundred yards farther up the hill and away from public view.

Hunters of all ages gather to harvest the bison that come out of Yellowstone National Park near Corwin Springs, Montana. This family had harvested a bison about an hour before this photo was taken March 1, 2020. (David Reese / CNS)

Gunther works as a bear biologist for Yellowstone National Park, and said the park takes extreme care to remove roadkill so that grizzly bears are not attracted to it. This area of bison remains often attracts grizzlies, which will soon be coming out of hibernation, he said.

“For years, the federal agencies have ignored the local residents’ plight and the extreme dangers of the hunt because they seem to think they have no alternatives to this gruesome, unsanitary, and dangerous hunt,” the lawsuit claims.

While one neighbor has taken the lawsuit approach to stopping the hunt, Gunther, meanwhile, said he has approached the agencies that oversee the killing — including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service — to try to find a solution to the carrion problem.

“When it deals with treaty rights, they claim there is no jurisdiction,” Gunther said.

According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone’s bison population has grown steadily over the last 50 years, from 500 animals in 1970 to about 4,900 today. The bison population increases 10% to 17% per year and predation by bears and wolves has had little effect in reducing the bison numbers, according to the park service.

In winter 2018-19, 460 bison were killed in the hunt or captured and taken to slaughter. This winter, wildlife officials decided to remove 600 to 900 animals through shooting outside the park, capture and shipment to slaughter at the park’s Stephens Creek facility, and placement in quarantine for transport to native American tribal lands.

Last Saturday, bright sunny weather changed to a wintertime blizzard by evening, as trucks and trailers hauled off the bison meat and hides. Lee Whiteplume’s truck and small trailer rattled down the dirt road, loaded with several hundred pounds of clean bison meat.

Once back home, the bounty of the harvest will be shared with his family. The entire family will get involved with the tanning of the enormous bison hide, using the brains as an emulsifier on the hide. “This will take weeks of strenuous work,” he said, “weeks and weeks, and hours upon hours of work.”

A member of another tribe approached Whiteplume to borrow his portable electric saw, while Whiteplume took a brief rest on his tailgate. Whiteplume looked down at the massive bison bull sprawled below him.

He was not festive or jovial, and no sense of bloodlust was displayed. He appeared at the same time somber but grateful. Snow began to spit out of the ashen gray sky and Whiteplume resumed his work on the bison.

“This represents our life and our livelihood,” Whiteplume said. “This is our connection to this landscape.”

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