BLACKFEET INDIAN RESERVATION — When Jeff Laursen and Gerald “Buzz” Cobell looked down at the dead buffalo, they saw two very different things.
As the half-ton, scraggly-haired bull lay on its side, bleeding from a bullet to the neck, its eyes closed.
Laursen, a hunter from Victor, marveled at his biggest kill. Before this, his largest bounty had been a deer. A heavy buck might weigh 160 pounds — about one-twelfth the size of a heavy bison bull, which can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. For Laursen to get a photo with the bison, it took six people to roll the carcass upright. The meat would feed his family for a year — and then some.
Looking at the same buffalo, Cobell, director of Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife, saw opportunity. The tribe has sold occasional bison hunts to interested individuals, but this hunt marked the first time a tribe in Montana opened a raffle bison hunt to the public.
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In partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Blackfeet Nation invited members of the public to enter two trophy bison hunt raffles. People could buy 20 tickets maximum at $10 apiece, and the winner had to pay $2,500 to secure the spot. Laursen won the first Blackfeet hunt. The second winner has not yet been chosen.
For Cobell and the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, the hunt represented new efforts to build trust with outside communities and organizations. It symbolized a new phase in the tribe’s bison management strategy and, above all, it affirmed the ways in which bison continue to help Native communities thrive.
Cobell needed the day to go well, and it was already off to a good start. Laursen had killed the animal with a single shot.
The Blackfeet Nation has at least 700 bison in its herd. In the winter, the animals roam on a nearly 10,000-acre pasture near the Two Medicine River in the southeast end of the reservation. The towering, snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountain Front loom over the flat, bare-grassed pasture.
Winter weather on the reservation is unpredictable and extreme, with winds strong enough to tip semi-trucks and temperatures low enough to close schools, tribal offices and highways. But Laursen's hunt fell on a sunny, 10-degree morning in February, which by the standards of those living on the reservation was considered mild.
Chaz Racine, who works for the Blackfeet Buffalo Program, congratulated Laursen on his kill.
“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal,” Racine said.
Laursen patted the buffalo hump and smiled. He couldn’t believe he’d won the raffle.
‘How on earth did our people do this?’
Laursen and his friend Frank Kennedy began skinning the buffalo, with help from others at the Blackfeet Buffalo Program.
“Feel this,” Laursen said, gesturing to the bison’s tough, 2-inch-thick hide and gnarled hair. As Laursen and his friend cut through the skin, their knives dulled. They took breaks to stretch their cramping hands, opening and closing their fists.
Kqyn Kuka, who is Blackfeet and the tribal liaison and diversity coordinator for FWP, watched.
“When I see this stuff, I just think, ‘How on earth did our people do this?’” she said. “I just can’t imagine. They had to go down by the water to clean (the buffalo). Think about how cold that river water is. And what about clothes? We’re in boots, but what were they wearing?”
Where the Blackfeet once killed bison with a bow and arrow and used stone tools to skin and clean the animal, in this hunt, Laursen and his friend used steel knives and an electric bone saw to quarter the bison. The Blackfeet Buffalo Program brought a forklift to hang the animal, allowing gravity to spur the process.
“That’s what you call the royal treatment,” Cobell said, as the forklift raised the half-skinned buffalo 10 feet in the air.
Even with modern tools and extra help, it took the group all morning to clean the animal.
Since time immemorial, Native Americans used buffalo for food, shelter, tools, clothing, jewelry and ceremony. Buffalo and Native people were so connected that biologists say the two mammals co-evolved.
But in the 19th century, settlers and U.S. soldiers killed millions of bison to devastate the tribal communities that relied on them. Ungulate diseases spread by domestic cattle are suspected for killing herds the hunters didn’t reach.
From 1820 to 1880, the bison population fell from around 30 to 60 million to fewer than 1,000. Some estimate that only 300 bison survived what’s now known as “the Great Slaughter.”
As the bison population declined, some states and the federal government passed laws to protect the animals. By the late 19th century, hundreds of bison occupied Yellowstone National Park.
Today, through partnerships with national parks, and organizations like the Intertribal Buffalo Council, bison have returned to tribal lands nationwide. Most tribes in Montana maintain their own herds.
Tribal bison hunts
While hunting may look different now than in the 19th century, buffalo still play a critical role in the Blackfeet community.
The Blackfeet Buffalo Program distributes buffalo meat — which is leaner than beef — to elders, members with health problems and food banks. The program donates bison to the immersion school or others who want to use it for ceremony. And the tribe regularly sells its own buffalo meat at the Glacier Family Foods grocery store in Browning at $7.99 a pound, so community members can afford it.
Ervin Carlson, Buffalo Program manager, said the program pays about $400 per animal to process and distribute bison meat. This year, he said the program plans to harvest about 20 buffalo for community distribution, which will cost the program at least $8,000.
Cobell said the tribe this year held 12 tribal member bison hunts, two elder hunts (which are free) and four hunts open to descendants. Tribal members who are selected don’t need to pay for a tag to hunt on their own reservation.
While these opportunities are important for community members culturally and otherwise, Cobell said they don't generate a lot of revenue. Sometimes, the Buffalo Program simply breaks even on tribal hunts.
“We’re an economically depressed people,” he said. Research suggests that a lack of employment opportunities, decades of oppressive federal policies and historical trauma have contributed to tribal communities’ disparate poverty rates. The median household income on the Blackfeet Reservation is $36,447 — about half that of the national average, which is nearly $71,000.
‘Opportunity to restore trust’
Raffle hunts open to all, including non-tribal members and people who live out of state, support the program's on-reservation activities.
But the idea can be controversial, given the history of settlers killing bison to starve Native people. When asked how the Blackfeet community responded to a bison hunt open to the public, Cobell said, “It depends who you ask.”
“Most are OK with it,” he said. Because the Buffalo Program offers several hunts for tribal members, the public raffle doesn’t take opportunities away from the community.
Carlson, manager of the program, said he hadn’t received much pushback regarding the public hunt. But if it becomes more frequent, he expects to field some criticism.
“The thing is, the tribes are strapped for dollars,” he said. “And we need to think of ways for our programs to be self-sufficient. This helps us be able to pay to process meat that we provide for our members.”
Carlson said the public raffle opportunity was also important in building relationships with agencies and people who operate in “the outside” — beyond the reservation.
The tribe partnered with FWP to put on the raffle, and the hunt by design invites non-Native hunters who may not be familiar with the tribe onto the reservation.
“The big thing for me is that people can see our tribe and see that we can work with people,” he said. “It builds good working relationships with people. And it lets them know that on our lands, we’re good to work with.”
Kuka, who is the first tribal liaison and diversity coordinator for FWP, said past conflicts between the agency and tribes have led to distrust. In her new position, Kuka’s main priority is to work with tribes to foster better working relationships.
As part of the arrangement, FWP helped promote the raffle hunt on its website and social media pages. The agency also helped administer the raffle and pick a winner.
FWP’s involvement provided an antidote for some hunters’ distrust. Laursen said he’d heard about the hunt because his wife saw a post on Facebook about it.
“I went to the FWP website because I wasn’t sure if it was real,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe everything he sees on social media. When Laursen saw FWP had a role in the hunt, he knew it was legitimate, and he entered.
Cobell said the first bison hunt raffle open to the public earned $55,000 — more than he had anticipated. The tribe is holding a second raffle hunt, which has raised at least $20,000 so far.
Carlson called the raffle opportunity “a good deal” for hunters. He said as the tribe’s herd continues to grow, he’s been approached by people who want to pay to hunt on the reservation.
“If they come as individuals and buy a hunt from us, they’d pay a lot more,” he said.
The Buffalo Program charges $3,500 minimum for a hunt, so Carlson called the raffle opportunity a “win-win.” The lottery offers a hunt at a lower price and generates substantial revenue for the program.
Carlson said the Buffalo Program will use the money from the raffle to strengthen fencing and buy hay for the animals. The revenue will also help fund the tribal member hunts and meat distribution efforts in the community.
The Blackfeet Buffalo Program, which manages and maintains the herd, is primarily funded through grants and supported by partnerships with other organizations. Financial support from the tribe is inconsistent, so Carlson said the extra $75,000 from both raffle hunts and counting will go a long way.
“The long-term goal is always to provide more land to these animals and to increase the size of our herd so we can take care of our people,” he said. “Buffalo can still help take care of us, just as they did before, like with this hunt.”