atop a snow-swept plateau on the Crow Reservation, bison shuffled
in the morning sun at the sound of an approaching airplane.
it passed overhead, most of the shaggy giants raced to the south,
while a few others scattered here and there. They ran for a few
seconds and, as the plane buzzed away, regrouped on a bare patch
of ground that overlooks Bighorn Lake, craggy canyon walls and a
wild landscape that stretches to every horizon.
this day, the sightseers' plane was a minor disturbance for the
Crow bison that roam 22,000 acres on the reservation.
rest of the winter hasn't been so easy for them - or for the people
trying to manage them.
drought and a growing herd have pinched the food supply and sent
hundreds of buffalo spilling off the reservation onto private and
public land in Wyoming.
ranchers and government officials worried about bison feeding on
cattle grazing allotments, Crow Agency crews this fall and winter
have been busy trying to push the bison back onto the reservation
and keep them there. Because of the steep terrain and deep snow,
much of the work has been done in helicopters and aboard snowmobiles,
trucks and ATVs.
been pretty hectic," said Leroy Stewart, director of the buffalo
program at Crow Agency.
people on bison crews have been injured, none seriously, including
one man who was in a pickup truck when it rolled at the bottom of
a canyon and another who crashed an ATV.
tribal officials are looking for ways to reduce the size of the
herd - which now stands at about 1,100 - and possibly recoup some
of the high costs of hazing.
200 buffalo have been killed this season, with most of the meat
going to tribal members. An upswing in buffalo prices and a chance
to get bison meat into a federal food program could help, Stewart
officials are determined to make something work.
most tribes, the economic impact isn't the driving force behind
it," said Fred DuBray, director of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative,
of Rapid City, S.D., which represents more than 50 American Indian
tribes with bison herds. "There are a lot of cultural realities
of bison once wandered the continent, providing spiritual and physical
nourishment to tribes. In the 1800s, hunts and slaughters reduced
the bison population from about 60 million to a few hundred.
recent generations, tribes throughout the West have been restoring
bison to the landscape "to help heal the spirit of both the
Indian people and the buffalo," according to the bison cooperative.
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota has the largest herd
in the country with about 3,500 bison, DuBray said.
the Crow Reservation, the current herd is the second attempt in
a century to bring back the bison.
the early 1930s, bison were brought to the reservation from Yellowstone
National Park and the National Bison Range near Moiese.
following years, the bison tested positive for brucellosis, a disease
that can cause cows to abort their calves. Pressure mounted from
cattle ranchers to do something. The herd, which had grown to about
1,500, was eliminated between 1962 and 1966.
tribe reintroduced bison to the reservation again in 1971, this
time importing about 400 animals from Theodore Roosevelt National
Park in North Dakota, where brucellosis has not been a problem.
the Crow herd should be several hundred bison fewer than 1,100,
Stewart said, but tribal officials have had a tough time limiting
the population and keeping the animals within the reservation borders.
The recent drought hasn't helped.
managers have designated tens of thousands of acres on the reservation
for the bison to graze, much of it in high, remote areas where the
animals can roam freely. But the grasses and other food sources
have been stressed by a lack of moisture, providing dwindling forage
that is slow to be replenished.
bison have eaten much of what's available, Stewart said.
cleaned out the forage area this year," he said. "With
the drought, there wasn't enough forage for them and they started
southward migration began in the fall as bison left the reservation
and crossed the Montana-Wyoming line east of Bighorn Lake, about
13 miles north of Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, northeast
bison that walk out of Yellowstone National Park, where ranchers
are concerned that brucellosis might be transmitted to cattle, the
concern over Crow bison, which are brucellosis-free, centers around
something more basic: food.
long after leaving the reservation, the Crow bison were eating on
private ranch land and land owned by the Bureau of Land Management
and Bighorn National Forest, raising concerns that the bison might
cut into food supplies meant for cattle. Some also worried that
federal agencies might cut back on grazing allotments as a reaction
to the bison.
than 500 bison were pushed back to the reservation in the first
week that tribal crews began tracking them in the air and on the
ground. Since then, more have wandered off the reservation and efforts
to get them back have been renewed.
very expensive and in that kind of terrain, you really have to watch
it," Stewart said.
weather, deep snow, heavy timber and treacherous terrain can make
it difficult to get to the bison and then steer them where they
need to go. Crews have had several close calls getting out of canyons
and other tight spots, Stewart said.
many times as we push them, there's a higher percentage of ... accidents
and it's taken a toll," Stewart said, mentioning the three
workers who have been injured this year. "Besides, it's a lot
of wear and tear on the vehicles. All of our ATVs and snowmobiles
are in the shop right now."
managers have been talking with federal officials about the possibility
of putting up a fence at a bottleneck passage on the south end of
the reservation, Stewart said. Bison, though, are known to move
easily through fences or over them.
monitoring and perhaps a few fences may be part of the solution,
but tribal officials are also looking at other measures.
200 bison were harvested in an effort to downsize the herd. Most
of the meat went to tribal members and a few bison were sold.
said the tribe might have sold more bison earlier but the prices
were low. That could be changing soon.
buffalo market may be buoyed by news that a cow in Washington state
had mad cow disease.
prices should shoot up any day," Stewart said.
that happens, 200 to 300 bison may be trucked off the Crow Reservation
and sold, he said. The revenue could be used to cover the expenses
of hazing bison and to fund education and natural resource programs.
said he believes efforts to market bison were already pushing up
buffalo prices before the news about mad cow. Tribes could benefit
from a potential bump in prices from mad cow, but DuBray cautioned
that bison exports face some of the same restrictions as cattle.
don't think we want to jump on this as a marketing opportunity,"
he said. "I'd hate to exploit someone else's problem."
beyond mad cow, DuBray said, interest in bison may be growing among
consumers. The grass-fed bison managed by the tribes could be considered
organic but DuBray said he tends to shy away from that classification
because "it means so many different things."
elsewhere could be housed in a pen and fed organic food and still
be considered organic, he said. The tribal bison are "much
more than that."
they're wild animals and they're treated that way," DuBray
Intertribal Bison Cooperative has also been pushing to allow tribal
buffalo to be included in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food
Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
said the program tends to purchase surplus food and pass it along
to the reservations. Too often, he said, the food doesn't provide
a proper nutritional balance.
unfortunately, a large part of their diet has been these kinds of
foods, lots of carbohydrates, fat and cholesterol. That leads to
health problems on the reservation," DuBray said. "It
needs to be addressed."
officials are lobbying the federal government to widen the variety
of food that's provided in the program. Bison raised by the tribes
would be healthier for recipients, DuBray said.
the Crow, getting into the federal program would give managers a
chance to trim the herd, make some money to cover their costs and
provide sustenance for the reservations.
trying to get native food to native people and get revenue back
from what we're doing," Stewart said.