Three Nebraska tribes are done losing land. Now they’re buying.

BLM’s new management plan balances conservation, energy extraction

As an energy rich state, Wyoming is no stranger to trying to find the balance between extraction and conservation. In the case of the Greater Little Mountain area near Flaming Gorge, the attempt to strike that balance has taken over a decade, resulting in a recently released draft plan that embraces two of the state’s key economic drivers: the oil and gas industry and our great outdoors.


This magical high desert region of over 500,000 acres in Sweetwater County boasts habitat of badlands, aspen groves and pine forests. This place, simultaneously rugged and fragile, is one of Wyoming’s most sought-after hunting grounds for mule deer and elk and holds intimate streams that shelter genetically pure Colorado River cutthroat trout. Since 1990, this area has also benefited from more than $10 million to enhance and maintain these resources from government agencies, as well as non-profits, local businesses and community members.

Last month, the Bureau of Land Management Rock Spring Field Office released a draft land use plan for southwest Wyoming that seeks to strike a common-sense balance between allowing for energy development and protecting sensitive fish and wildlife habitats.

What I appreciate most in the BLM’s balanced, thoughtful approach is how it does not impact existing oil and gas leases. In fact, over half of the planning area is already leased and there are already active, producing wells across the landscape. Simultaneously, the BLM’s newly proposed oil and gas rule would be a long-overdue win for local communities by reducing conflict between leasing and drilling and other uses that are essential to supporting Wyoming’s way of life: fishing, hunting, recreation and conservation.

For decades, the federal oil and gas leasing programs prioritized resource extraction over valuable fish and wildlife habitats on our shared public lands. This is why Congress had to pass legislation in 2009 to protect 1.2 million acres in the Wyoming Range from ill-advised oil and gas leasing. But now the BLM is working to improve public land management by curtailing speculative leasing that directly impacts wildlife habitat while providing little if any public benefit.

Public lands oil and gas development has no doubt benefited Wyoming and our country, and will continue to do so for years to come. But what’s important moving forward is continuing to find a balance between our economy and special places like Greater Little Mountain.

As Wyoming sportsmen and sportswomen begin to ramp up for hunting season — with many pursuing game in the landscapes where they work — I appreciate that the BLM’s proposed management plan for southwest Wyoming seeks to provide for both responsible energy development and conservation.

Throughout the fall, the BLM will be taking public comment on the four proposed alternative plans, and now is the time for those who care about the future of public land hunting and fishing in southwest Wyoming to speak up. Energy development and conservation need not be mutually exclusive, but it takes smart planning to strike this balance. This is our moment to get it right.

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Supervisors approve changes to affordable housing rules

Among the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance is the requirement to build affordable units within 10 miles of an incorporated city. Photo by Monserrat Solis.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 12 unanimously approved changes to the Affordable Housing Regulations proposed by the county’s Planning Commission. The changes included setting an affordable housing threshold and terminating the Housing Advisory Committee.

The county’s Planning Commission had previously approved the changes to the Affordable Housing Regulations, also known as the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, in a public hearing on July 19.

The housing ordinance establishes requirements for future housing developments, aims to set the minimum amount of affordable housing that will be built, and sees that county land is used for housing in accordance with state and local housing needs.

Three amendment changes were approved by the supervisors:

  • Terminating the Housing Advisory Committee
  • A requirement to build affordable units within 10 miles of an incorporated city
  • Updating the 20% requirement for off-site rental units among very low, low and moderate income designations

Stephanie Reck, an associate planner for San Benito County, said the 10-mile requirement would allow residents of new housing developments to effortlessly access city resources and amenities including shopping centers, grocery stores and public transportation.

For example, if an applicant proposes a development project more than 10 miles from an incorporated city in the county, affordable housing must be built outside of the project area, within the 10-mile radius, Reck said. The requirement applies to both housing for sale and for rent, Reck said in an email.

The Planning Commission clarified that the 10-mile radius begins at the city limits and not at the center of the cities.

According to the report by Reck, the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance applies to projects of more than six units.

Projects of six to 10 units are required to pay an in-lieu fee of $30 per square foot for for sale units rather than building affordable housing, according to the county’s inclusionary requirements, Reck said.

The ordinance requires that 20% of all off-site rental units be reserved for very low income, low income and medium income housing.

Affordable housing is based on an area’s median income (AMI), which in San Benito County is $101,923. The income categories vary depending on the size of a household, but the formula for affordability provided by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is as follows:

  • Acutely low income: 0%-15% of AMI
  • Extremely low income: 15%-30% of AMI
  • Very low income: 30% to 50% of AMI
  • Lower income: 50% to 80% of AMI; this designation may also be used to mean 0% to 80% of AMI
  • Moderate income: 80% to 120% of AMI

Given this formula, a household in the county making $122,307 is considered moderate income.

With the changes, very low income and low income units would both comprise 7.5% and moderate income units would comprise 5% of all future approved units.

The 20% requirement meets the state’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation, and calls for 246 very low income and 198 low income units in the county’s next eight-year plan, Reck said.

The affordable housing plans were previously reviewed by the Housing Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission, then the Board of Supervisors, which was “redundant,” Reck, the told the meeting.

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Family legacies and the state’s Jim Crow past underlie a fight over mineral rights on a stretch of South Texas scrubland

Descendants of a prominent white family and a formerly enslaved couple are fighting over ownership — and the oil and gas royalties that would come with it — of an 147.5-acre tract that has bound and divided generations of their families.

‘Path of the Pronghorn’ bottleneck leased for development at $19/acre

Judith and Matthew Thompson have watched countless pronghorn hoof it over the frozen New Fork River on the parcel of state land adjacent to their home. 

“The best migration that you could watch comes through that section,” Matthew Thompson said. “It does bottleneck them, and they’ve probably been doing it for 10,000 years right there.” 

Sometimes they’re inspired to record photos and videos of the trails left by massive herds on the go. Last winter, Judith Thompson pulled out her phone to call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and inquire what to do about a doe pronghorn dying in view of her home. 

Judith Thompson, who splits time between Wilson and Sublette County, poses where hundreds of pronghorn crossed over the frozen New Fork River on state land adjacent to her home. (Courtesy)

On Monday, she pulled out her phone once more, this time to text WyoFile her thoughts about the potential oil and gas development that might be going in one lot over, on the section of Wyoming-owned land right where the pronghorn tend to push through.

“It really sucks,” Judith Thompson wrote. “I’m floored that the state would deem this particular piece of land as to be so vital to the state coffers that they would sacrifice a national treasure for what would be a pittance of their budget.” 

Unbeknownst to the Thompsons until Monday, the rights to drill for oil and gas on the 640-acre parcel abutting their property — part of Wyoming’s school trust land system — had been auctioned off 12 days prior at a Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments lease sale. The winning bid came in at $19/acre, for a total cost of $13,170 including fees. The company that placed the winning bid has not yet been identified and will remain unnamed until auction documents are published online Thursday, according to Diana Wolvin, an OSLI employee. 

Environmental groups aren’t waiting to learn the lease holder’s name before lambasting the state for greenlighting oil and gas leases in a particularly vulnerable segment of the Path of the Pronghorn, right where migratory herds come off the Pinedale Mesa and cross the New Fork River. 

“This winter was devastating on the Sublette pronghorn herd [and] the last thing these remaining animals need is another obstacle in their way during their seasonal migrations,” Nick Dobric, the Wilderness Society’s Wyoming conservation manager, wrote to WyoFile in an email. “We’ve had good data on this migration for well over a decade, so the state’s continuing inaction to recognize and manage the Path of the Pronghorn is careless.”

The Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments leased several tracts of school trust land within the undesignated migration corridor of the Sublette Pronghorn Herd during its July 12 lease sale. Conservation groups are especially concerned about parcel 194, which is overlaps an antelope thoroughfare used by animals crossing the New Fork River. (Mackenzie Bosher, The Wilderness Society. Sources: Energy Net, Esri, USGS.)

Meghan Riley, a public lands and wildlife advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, called Wyoming’s lack of a system to “catch these conflicts” where migration routes haven’t yet been designated “disappointing.”

“Everybody knows these guys got hammered,” Riley said, “and it’s sad to see threats and pressure coming from so many different directions.”  

Four-year delay

Wyoming does have a migration policy that is designed to avert such conflicts, but it hasn’t been used in years.

The celebrated Path of the Pronghorn — AKA, the Sublette Pronghorn Herd migration — includes animals that migrate all the way to Grand Teton National Park and right by Thompson’s backdoor. Although it’s the next migration corridor in the queue to be designated, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Path of the Pronghorn has stayed in that on-deck space for more than four years. Proposed protection of the route was paused in 2019, when an alliance of industry groups successfully pressured the state to overhaul how it nominates and designates migration corridors. 

No migration corridor has been designated, or received protections since, though the four-year delay may be nearing its end. 

Coming soon is a Wyoming Game and Fish Department “threat analysis” that will recommend whether the Sublette Pronghorn Herd migration needs to be designated or not, according to deputy director Angi Bruce. 

“I think we’re a few months out,” Bruce said. “Once we review [the threat analysis], we’ll decide where we go. That’ll be taken to our commission at a future commission meeting for their direction and guidance.” 

A group of pronghorn trots through the snow in the Green River Basin in April 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Wyoming’s migration policy stems from a gubernatorial executive order that lets the governor call the shots. The state’s current chief executive, Gov. Mark Gordon, has downplayed designating the Path of the Pronghorn. At a Pinedale meeting about severe wildlife winterkill in March, he heard calls to make the designation.

“Our pronghorn cannot wait another minute,” Upper Green River Alliance Director Linda Baker told Gordon. “Please do it now.” 

In response, the governor called for a “durable” solution that transcends political swings and changes in federal land management policy. 

“Drawing a line on a map is not going to fix that,” Gordon said. Instead, he said, a “committed” coalition of private landowners, local agencies and the public is needed to make the “migration corridor work.”

Bitter winter, encroaching development

The Sublette Pronghorn Herd has had a rough couple years. 

Based on GPS collar data being amassed to guide a prospective designation, roughly 75% of the formerly 43,000-animal herd died last winter, casualties of an unusual, inverted low-elevation snowpack and a mycoplasma bovis outbreak. Every collared animal that trekked all the way from the Green River Basin to Grand Teton National Park perished, though the Jackson Hole News&Guide has since reported that park biologists have anecdotally observed “at least 25” pronghorn that made the journey.

The carcasses of 16 pronghorn are clustered on a hill overlooking Highway 191 south of Boulder in May 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Meanwhile, the herd’s habitat is being slashed. Encroachments on the migration include private land subdivisions exempted from the state’s policy and a Lower Valley Energy gas pipeline that’s going in

Immediately south of the state parcel just leased, Sotheby’s real estate has listed 80 acres for those “looking for serenity, solace and a sense of wide open spaces” to build their “dream home getaway” — price tag $700,000. 

The lot just south of Wyoming’s school trust section along Paradise Road is on the market for $700,000. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

At a July 7 forum on conserving ungulate migration, University of California-Berkeley researcher Arthur Middleton spoke to the confluence of development forces that are coming to places like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. (Disclosure: Middleton is married to WyoFile board member Anna Sale.)

“These parks attract development,” Middleton said. “They attract development that undermines their own selves. Remote work, COVID, TV shows like Yellowstone — seriously — these are driving a wave of development pressure that’s hitting this place, and it’s going to be very severe, I think.”  

Arthur Middleton speaks at the inaugural gathering of the Global Initiative on Ungulate Migration in July 2023. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Yet other threats to the Sublette Pronghorn Herd’s travel paths loom. 

Jonah Energy’s $17 billion Normally Pressured Lance gas field carves through the southern reaches of the yet-to-be designated Path of the Pronghorn. An attorney for Wyoming contended the gas field and migration corridor didn’t overlap during oral arguments this spring in a case about pronghorn impacts before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, but was criticized by one biologist for “doing a deliberate mislead.”

Research found the decades-old Pinedale Anticline field caused Sublette pronghorn to avoid and even abandon altered parts of the landscape after collaborative efforts to create a pronghorn-friendly gas field fell apart

Pronghorn protections precluded

Wyoming’s migration policy calls for state agencies to “maintain habitat and limit future disturbance.” Infrastructure like gas pads are to be located  within already disturbed or biologically unsuitable areas if they must occur within a designated corridor, the policy states. 

Even without a designation, Wyoming Game and Fish could have recommended pronghorn protections when it vetted the state’s lease sale, said Bruce, the agency’s deputy director. 

“A lot of people think we need a designation to use our data — if that were the case, we would have spent the last 50 years not using our data,” she said. “The data is the data, and we use it all the time in our operations, our commenting and our reviews.” 

Via a letter and spreadsheet, Game and Fish did ask that some wildlife stipulations be attached to parcel 194, the New Fork River tract leased for $19 an acre. 

Because of the state agency’s recommendation, there’s a stipulation for “big game crucial winter range” instructing developers to avoid human activity from Nov. 15 to April 30. Another stipulation will require that the winning bidder provides a 300-foot buffer from the New Fork River, while another is geared toward preventing the spread of aquatic invasive species. A stipulation that made it through subjects exploration and development activities to Wyoming’s sage grouse core area policy, which is in the process of being revised

Industrial equipment, including a battery of Ultra Resources tanks, are located on a section of school trust land where the state of Wyoming auctioned off an oil and gas lease for $19 an acre. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

But a stipulation for pronghorn migration didn’t make the cut for the parcel along the New Fork River. 

Will Schultz, Game and Fish’s habitat protection supervisor, said there are still opportunities via “micro-siting” techniques to diminish the impact of development that’s coming. It’s not like it’s an undisturbed parcel, he pointed out.

“If it can be sited in close proximity to current development, it might not have any more impact than the development that’s already there,” Schultz said. “Hopefully there can be some collocation.” 

Paradise Road, the New Fork River’s Remmick boat ramp and even a battery of Ultra Resources tanks from an earlier era of energy development are among existing developments on the school trust parcel. 

The potential for micro-siting near these disturbances isn’t enough to fully placate Dobric, the Wilderness Society staffer. 

“It’s irresponsible to lease or permit without adequate protections, like the state is proposing now, with what we know about this migration,” he said. “If Wyoming wants to continue to be a leader in big-game migration conservation and ensure our herds are able to rebound then the state needs to take decisive action formally recognizing these migrations.”

The New Fork River, as seen from the Remmick boat ramp. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Based on publicly available pronghorn location data, the development rights just auctioned off almost assuredly would impact the landscape within the Sublette Pronghorn Herd’s migration corridor, Dobric said.

“There’s additional collar data out there that shows even more routes,” he said. “We’ve heard that the New Fork parcel is even more used than what’s shown already.”  

The Thompsons have seen it firsthand. Matthew Thompson thought back to fall of 2018, when the Roosevelt Fire raged in the Bondurant area to the north, seeming to facilitate an early migration.

“My painter and I watched thousands come through there,” Matthew Thompson said, “and it just blew his mind.”

Thompson on Monday seemed resigned about the fate of the state parcel next door. 

“We aren’t going to be able to stop it,” he said. 

But the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Riley hasn’t given up the fight. She sent a protest letter to the State Board of Land Commissioners, which meets to review and finalize the sale on Aug. 3. 

“Biologists at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have drawn on a massive dataset and put tremendous effort into understanding where these animals move on the landscape in preparation for a long-awaited process to officially identify this corridor, with a potential designation in the future,” Riley wrote. “We ask that parcel 194 be withdrawn until that can happen.”

Other neighbors along Paradise Road reached by WyoFile were less convinced that another gas pad or two would further harm the pronghorn migration coming off the Pinedale Mesa and crossing over New Fork River on the way to more southern sweeps of sagebrush. 

“I don’t want it to have an impact, but what’s the most important?” cattle rancher Vera Roberts said. 

Both pronghorn and oil and gas, she added, are “very important.” 

“So I don’t know,” Roberts said. 

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Treaty rights, bison and the country’s most controversial hunt

The bison’s massive front- and hindquarters rested on a blue tarp to protect them from dirt and other contaminants. Gut piles left by other hunters, frosted with March snow, dotted the hillsides around Falcon. As she field-dressed the animal, tourists headed to the park passed by less than half a mile away. “We’re using our space that we have always used,” Falcon said. “We’re just using it again now with an audience.”

Falcon’s harvest is a revitalization of Indigenous knowledge and culture. But the hunt is also a public lightning rod — part of an ongoing controversy over managing an iconic species that tribal nations, the federal government and the state of Montana all have deep and different interests in.

“We’re using our space that we have always used. We’re just using it again now with an audience.”

A bison migrating along the northern border of Yellowstone National Park in late March.

AT LEAST 27 TRIBES have historic ties to the Yellowstone region. In the late 19th century, the United States government forced them out as part of a nationwide effort to exterminate and assimilate Indigenous people. Treaties between tribes and the federal government in the mid-1800s established reservations across the region, but maintained hunting rights in places deemed “unoccupied.”

At the same time, bison, which once numbered between 30 and 60 million in North America, were deliberately slaughtered en masse, part of the campaign to clear the land of Indigenous people: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” U.S. Army Col. Richard Dodge reportedly said in 1867. By the early 1900s, fewer than two dozen wild bison remained, deep in Yellowstone National Park.

Thanks to federal conservation efforts, bison rebounded in Yellowstone — and tribes began to reclaim their rights to harvest them. In the mid-2000s, the Nez Perce Tribe wrote to Montana’s governor, claiming their right to hunt bison on Forest Service land adjacent to the park. The state acknowledged the tribe’s sovereignty. “Today, after years without meaningful access to bison, the Nimiipuu are reconnecting with bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area, re-asserting our sacred relationship with the bison, and exercising our treaty-reserved right to hunt bison that was secured by our ancestors and promised by the United States,” the tribe said in an emailed statement. Over time, more tribes followed; last winter, eight tribal nations hunted bison outside Yellowstone, some from as far away as Washington and Oregon.

Wyett Wippert and Christen Falcon stand next to their bison hide outside their home in East Glacier, Montana, in April.

Tribal hunters entered a contentious landscape. For decades, the state of Montana, federal agencies and conservation groups have gone back and forth through lawsuits, legislation and protests over how many Yellowstone bison there should be, and where. Bison and elk in the region harbor the country’s last reservoir of a disease called brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort and become infertile. While there have been no confirmed cases of wild bison spreading brucellosis to domestic cattle, the state still spends more than a million dollars every year to prevent its spread. If Montana loses its brucellosis-free status, it could forfeit another $10 million or more per year. Tribes, wildlife managers and park officials developed three methods to keep the park’s bison numbers down: hunting outside Yellowstone, transfer to tribes, and capture by park officials for slaughter.

“Today, after years without meaningful access to bison, the Nimiipuu are reconnecting with bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area.” 

By 2022, Yellowstone bison numbered about 6,000 — the highest since recovery began. During particularly harsh winters, when ice and deep snow block forage, the animals migrate north, searching for food. Last year, winter came on strong and early, and buffalo appeared in locations that they likely hadn’t grazed in a century.

A buffalo head harvested by Lauren Monroe, a Blackfeet tribal member, near Beattie Gulch in March. The meat from Monroe’s harvest goes directly to elders in the Blackfeet community.

That meant they had to pass through Beattie Gulch and other federal land, where hunters waited. Conservation groups have long criticized the park’s bison cull, but this year’s high harvest amplified that tension. Videos circulated online showed gut piles lining the road, blood streaming down the brown dirt as the offal thawed. Billboards popped up across the state, reading: “There is no hunt. It’s slaughter!” One local organization, the Gallatin Wildlife Association, wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, urging the federal government to “renegotiate how (tribal) treaty rights should be enforced in a modern society.”

Bonnie Lynn, who lives across the road from Beattie Gulch, is a longtime hunt opponent. Monitoring the harvest from cameras placed around her property, she said she’s seen injured animals fleeing into the park, dozens of hunters in a firing line — even people unintentionally shooting toward each other and the road. She’s also concerned about ecosystem health: Lead poisoning from bullets can devastate raptors and other scavenging birds. “To watch this on a daily basis is emotionally draining,” she said.

Lynn, like many others, blames this year’s high harvest on federal and state mismanagement. In May, Jaedin Medicine Elk, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and co-founder of the group Roam Free Nation, wrote an open letter to tribes that harvest Yellowstone bison. (The Northern Cheyenne Tribe hasn’t participated in the modern hunt.) “I don’t think the buffalo could go through another winter like this one,” he wrote. He said state and federal governments respect tribal treaty rights only when it directly benefits their agenda — in this case, serving Montana’s livestock industry. Bison need more room to roam, he wrote. When that happens, a respectful hunt can begin.


Blackfeet tribal members Wyett Wippert and Christen Falcon stretch a bison hide on a handmade wooden frame, the first step in tanning it, at their home in East Glacier, Montana.


AT THEIR HOME in East Glacier on the Blackfeet Reservation, more than five hours north of Beattie Gulch, Christen Falcon and her partner, Wyett Wippert, threaded nylon rope through the edges of a bison hide and pulled it taut, like tightening shoelaces. This was the couple’s first experience tanning a hide on their own. Chatting about the harvest with friends and neighbors, they tossed scraps of fat and meat to their dogs, Binks and Noi. “Gonna have all the neighbor dogs over here,” Wippert joked. “They’re comin’!”

Falcon said there’s a running joke about Yellowstone bison hunters in her community: They aren’t real hunters, people say. The hunt is roadside, and the animals are accustomed to tourists wielding cameras, not guns. Still, she said, it’s better than the alternative the animals face: Many of them likely would be slaughtered by the park anyway.

Falcon works for a nonprofit that focuses on Indigenous-led research. The bulk of her and Wippert’s harvest will go to a study she’s leading that will analyze what happens when tribal members consume a completely traditional diet. Animal parts with special meaning, like the tongue, will go to knowledge-holders. Ultimately, she sees the Yellowstone harvest as a blessing; it helps everyone who hunts and receives meat connect to land, culture and identity. “That’s what sovereignty is — taking care of yourself,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

 “That’s what sovereignty is — taking care of yourself.”

Tribal hunters HCN interviewed said their meat goes to family, community members, even schools. An average bison yields, conservatively, 500 pounds of steak and burger, meaning the winter’s harvest of Yellowstone bison equates to over a half-million pounds of lean meat going straight to tribal communities. In places like the Blackfeet Reservation — where census data shows a poverty rate of 31.1%, roughly triple Montana’s average — that can have a real impact on food security and nutrition. Christina Flammond, a tribal member and the reservation’s sole meat processor, waives her 85-cents-per-pound processing fee for hunters who donate half their meat to local food pantries. “I never dreamed of processing this many bison,” Flammond said one April afternoon at her facility, where a handful of bison quarters hung, aging.

Christen Falcon holds the heart of a bison that she and her partner harvested on the northern border of Yellowstone National Park.

BISON IGNORE STATE, federal and tribal land boundaries, so managing them requires getting parties with sometimes diametrically opposed interests to agree. That’s not easy. As last winter began, the state, federal government and tribes hit an impasse. Montana wanted fewer bison while tribal nations argued that more of the ungulates should graze the hills and valleys of the region. In the end, the park suggested there’s no science-based reason to reduce the population and proposed that at most a quarter of it — 1,500 animals — be removed through hunting, slaughter and transfer to tribes.

Tribes, as sovereign nations, set their own hunting dates and regulations. Reporting hunt numbers is voluntary, and no cumulative goals exist. As bison flooded through Beattie Gulch, the total removed from the Yellowstone population — hundreds of animals were transferred to tribes or slaughtered — exceeded the park’s proposed limit. “I don’t want to see multiple years of substantial population reduction like we just had,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly.

“Everybody’s freaking out that there’s Indians eating from buffalo. That’s not a bad thing; that’s actually a good thing.”

James Holt, a Nez Perce tribal member and executive director of the advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, said last winter’s hunt shows how Montana’s efforts to minimize the population have “led to every tribe for itself.” Lamenting the lack of a shared vision, he said, “It’s a tragedy of the commons that we’re seeing on the ground right now.” Still, there’s an opportunity for collaboration that centers both buffalo and tribes. He wants to see tribes work together to oversee a sustainable harvest, much the way Columbia River tribes cooperate on fish management.

“Everybody’s freaking out that there’s Indians eating from buffalo,” said Kekek Jason Stark, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and professor of law at the University of Montana. “That’s not a bad thing; that’s actually a good thing.”

In “Re-Indigenizing Yellowstone,” published in the Wyoming Law Review last year, Stark and his co-authors offered what he called a “road map” to empower tribal voices in America’s first national park. Their vision encompasses more than bison: They suggested that Congress could return the park to tribal management, much as it did with the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation. Short of that, the park should empower tribes as partners with true decision-making authority. Since so many tribes with diverse interests have connections to the Yellowstone area, they suggested creating an intertribal commission. Once that work begins in Yellowstone, Stark said, “it’s going to catch like wildfire” on other federal lands.

Right now, only two of the eight tribes with bison-hunting rights are officially part of the conglomeration of agencies and tribal entities that manage the area’s bison, via an effort known as the Interagency Bison Management Plan, or IBMP. Four treaty tribes are also serving as partners while Yellowstone works on a new environmental impact statement to replace its nearly 25-year-old bison management plan. Last year, the park published the alternatives it’s considering, with population numbers ranging from 3,500 animals to as high as 8,000 or more. The state of Montana pushed back immediately, saying all the alternatives were too high and urging the park to withdraw those population targets.

Packaged bison meat in the cooler of C&C Meat Processing. Christina Flammond, a Blackfeet tribal member and the reservation’s sole meat processor, has processed more Yellowstone bison from the tribal treaty hunt this year than ever before.

In a June IBMP meeting — the first since last winter’s hunt — bison managers discussed how to move forward. Yellowstone Superintendent Sholly said there needs to be better landscape-level collaboration among all groups that hunt: “It can’t be a free-for-all.” Others, including the chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, agreed. But Ervin Carlson, a Blackfeet member and president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, said all the talk of the hunt distracts from another way of managing the population: Ramping up the park’s program to transfer living, breathing bison to tribal groups across the country.

The federal government is already in the throes of a massive effort to restore the iconic animal nationwide. A $25 million Interior Department initiative aims to partner with tribes and establish “wide-ranging herds on large landscapes,” to revitalize both ecosystems and cultures. The saga in Yellowstone shows just how difficult it can be to put those ideas into practice. In fact, Montana’s Legislature passed a resolution in April opposing federal bison reintroduction on a wildlife refuge more than 200 miles north of Yellowstone, one of several recent state-led attempts to create barriers to introducing wild bison in the state.

The future of bison management requires governmental policy decisions. But it also depends on the smaller-scale, on-the-ground actions of tribal members like Christen Falcon. “We’re Indigenizing this space,” Falcon said, warming up in a car in March, overlooking the wintry hills of Yellowstone. The dead animals, the publicly visible gore — she understands how unusual it all looks. “We’re showing this Western world that not everything is as it seems.”      

Nick Mott is an award-winning journalist and podcast producer who focuses mostly on climate, public land and the environment. He’s based in Livingston, Montana.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a writer and audio journalist who’s an editorial intern for the Indigenous Affairs desk at HCN. She’s Arapaho and Shoshone and writes about racism, rurality, and gender. 

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