Nez Perce want to expand Montana bison hunt

Garniner, Montana (AP) 3-08

Idaho’s Nez Perce tribe wants to expand its bison hunt in Montana, but state wildlife officials say the tribe is struggling to properly manage its current hunt, making it difficult to agree to any expansion.

The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department said American Indians are already allocated as many bison as non-Indian hunters.

“It’s going to get complicated,” said FWP Chief of Staff Chris Smith.

Tribal members also have been killing elk in the Gardiner area this winter under tribal permits, and Fish, Wildlife and Parks said that isn’t allowable.

“FWP will be pursuing legal action for over-harvest of bison and for harvest of species other than bison,” FWP Director Jeff Hagener wrote in a February letter to tribal Chairman Samuel N. Penney.

Smith said those actions could include citing individuals or seeking a restraining order in civil court.

FWP maintains the tribe can take no elk and a maximum of 41 bison.

The tribe maintains it can take 70 to 110 bison and an undetermined number of elk. Members have killed about 14 elk so far, a tribal official said.

Meanwhile, Yellowstone National Park officials and the Montana Department of Livestock are shipping hundreds of animals to slaughter. The state doesn’t consider that hunting, but rather disease management.

Penny maintains that if the government is killing that many animals, the tribe should have a chance to take some.

The Nez Perce have a 19th-century treaty that grants them the right to hunt on “open and unclaimed” land in the Yellowstone National Park area. That term has been defined to mean national forest land outside the park. The state of Montana does not dispute the Nez Perce right to hunt bison, but has issues with how the hunt has been conducted.

Sheppard ran through a list of problems his staff has encountered over the three winters the Nez Perce have hunted in the state. He said they include seven cases of wasting meat or carcasses; two of shooting without permit; two of shooting from a road; and one of littering.

Some tribal hunters have left unsightly messes along roadways, such as gut piles, boned carcass heads and hides, and some chased bison from Gardiner to a designated hunting zone, running them through a woman’s yard, Sheppard said.

While such events might not be illegal, they’re “not helpful,” Sheppard said.

All of those potential violations have been turned over to tribal officials for possible prosecution, Sheppard said, but there has been little action.

“We’ll be reviewing such cases,” said Joseph Oatman, chairman of the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. “We are very ... serious about issuing citations if tribal members do violate the tribal regulations.”

Montana has recognized hunting rights in the Yellowstone area for only one other tribe, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes of Montana. That tribe exercised those rights for the first time this year, staying within agreed upon limits and running a clean hunt, Sheppard said.

“It was a seamless transition,” Sheppard said. “It couldn’t have been better.”