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Bison distribution favors American Indian tribes

EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. ? American Indian bison ranchers will get a shot in the arm and reservations will get better quality meat thanks to an intensely lobbied ruling from the General Accounting Office.

Bison producing tribes and individual Indian ranchers that have been left out of the pool of suppliers for the food distribution programs on Indian reservations will now be the producers of choice to supply quality bison meat.

"There are a lot of people with health problems that need quality food," said Fred DuBray, director of the bison program for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and member of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), a consortium of 51 member tribes that produce buffalo.

"Indian producers don't have to be members of the ITBC, nor do any have to go along with the agreement, but most will," DuBray said.

To win access to this market, Indian producers had to defeat a high-powered lobbying drive from a rival bison-producers' cooperative dominated by media mega-millionaire and land baron Ted Turner. The New Rockford, [North Dakota?]-based North American Bison Cooperative, made up of ranchers from North Dakota and 17 other states, had been favored to win the contract to supply frozen bison patties and stew meat for a federally funded program to feed American Indians on reservations. Most of its members are non-Indian. [ -- Dave: is this true? I think they told me so once when I interviewed them long ago.]

The member-owned cooperative lobbied North Dakota's congressional delegation

to have the contract inserted into a U.S. Department of Agriculture spending

bill, and even helped write the language. The measure was approved by

Congress last month and signed by President Bush.

Through the efforts of the ITBC in meetings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the GAO issued an interpretation that favored the tribal bison producers.

Government lawyers concluded that a strict reading of the bill

requires the agency to obtain the bison meat from American Indian sources. Some individual producers are members of tribes that aren't ITBC members, but they will all participate.

Leaders of the North American Bison Cooperative, the nation's largest bison meat producing group said after the ruling that they were devastated.

"It's always been devastating to us because we have been left out," retorted DuBray. He said the GAO favored the ITBC because Indian country bison producers would provide the quality product necessary for healthy diets.

This ruling will place quality cuts of meat on the distribution program instead of the trim that has been stored frozen for up to two and one-half years, DuBray said. He said that federal regulations prevent his group from selling frozen meat that is more than six months old. The trim is the fat and excess meat left after the quality cuts of meat are taken for a higher priced market, said DuBray. He said it usually ends up as ground meat.

"I'm not saying the food (the distribution program gets) is not good. We can get a higher quality product into the program," he said. [The alternative proposal, he said, would take Indian buffalo and mix it with 12 percent fat, which is not good quality meat.

"I do appreciate the Indian preference,'' said Tex Hall, chairman of the

Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota and President of the National Congress of American Indians.

"We've got substantial amounts of grassland for raising bison, but limited opportunities to the capital to make it work. So it's truly an economic stimulus to the tribes to have this opportunity."

Hall said the tribe, which manages a herd of 1,000 bison on the Fort

Berthold Reservation, has submitted a bid for the $3 million contract. The Three Affiliated Tribes are not a member of the ITBC.

If awarded the deal, the tribe would have to subcontract with other tribes to

come up with enough frozen bison meat to meet the contract's demands, Hall

said.

"Obviously we couldn't bid the whole contract,'' he said. ``But this is

something we've been working on a long time. And we're hoping to keep the

contract involved with North and South Dakota (tribes) as much as we

could.''

"This program will include all tribes with buffalo. ITBC will take the lead to insure the integrity of the program and make sure the producers are what they say they are," DuBray said.