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Fort Belknap opens promising meat packing venture

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MALTA, Mont. - Leaders of the Fort Belknap Indian Community are confident that a meat processing plant they recently opened can help bring health and prosperity to their own people and beyond.

Along with providing sorely-needed employment, the Little Rockies Meat Packing Company, as the business is now known, is being renovated to handle all types of livestock, including buffalo raised on the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and other regional outlets. In time, tribal officials hope the operation can become one of the top bison-processing centers in the country.

The facility, built in 1974, was first owned by Hi-Line Packing. It was then purchased three years ago by the Big Sky Beef Company. But that firm dissolved last year, and the plant and surrounding land were picked up by Fort Belknap's Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes for $50,000 at a bank foreclosure sale in December.

In the months since, the tribes have invested another $25,000 in renovations to improve its efficiency and bring the facility up to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, said General Manager Leonard Mingneau. Another $8,000 is expected to be spent strengthening adjacent corrals so they can handle a steady flow of bison. Also being discussed are plans to build new office space and an expanded customer service area.

The Denver-based Native American Bank, which also has offices on the nearby Blackfeet Reservation, approved a $150,000 loan for the plant's purchase and to help get initial operations started. Another $100,000 loan from the bank, based on future performance, is pending, Mingneau said.

In late September, the USDA issued its certification for the plant, and a federal inspector is based on site to monitor daily operations. Along with already slaughtering and processing small numbers of bison, the business does custom killing, cutting and packaging of cattle, pigs and sheep for non-Indian and Indian producers from around this agriculturally-rich area.

Mingneau said the tribes are completing an application for a grant to expand freezer capacity. Current capacity is about 10,000 pounds, or a maximum of 60 to 80 slaughtered animals.

Arrangements have already been made with the Montana Jerky Company in Kalispell to produce dry meat, and discussions are under way on opening a tribally run sausage production center and retail outlet at a former shopping complex along U.S. Highway 2 in Fort Belknap. Related gift packs of bison products, which can be shipped anywhere in the world, are currently handled by the Chalet Market Sausage Company, based in Belgrade, Mont.

The Fort Belknap tribes, which now have about 750 animals in their own Snake Butte herd, are working closely with the South Dakota-based InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), and the plant sponsored a seminar on buying and renovating a processing business for the group this summer.

ITBC Executive Director Fred DuBray said his organization is providing technical support for the Fort Belknap operation, and they're exploring "how we might be able to get them up and going and help establish a market for their products."

The ITBC is working with Congress on a proposed $500,000 appropriation to implement the non-profit group's new marketing initiative for its 51 member tribes, which includes Fort Belknap. The request is included in the U.S. Department of Interior's main 2004 funding bill, which was approved by the Senate in late September. The full bill now awaits action in the House. In all, according to ITBC officials, tribes across the nation today manage about 15,000 head of bison.

DuBray and Mingneau say it makes a lot of sense for American Indians to be in the business. There's the strong cultural component, especially for Northern Plains' tribes, and buffalo meat is deemed healthier for consumers than beef because of its low fat content and richness in iron and other vitamins.

"They don't get the marbling that beef does," said Mingneau, who has been in the Montana meat business for more than 30 years. "There's also no gamey taste."

Bison meat is also believed to serve as a natural suppressant for diabetes, which impacts Native peoples with disturbing frequency. Mingneau added that the ITBC is buying buffalo meat raised on the Fort Belknap Reservation and distributing it to 15 tribal members suffering from the disease. A primary aim of the program is to monitor the meat's positive effects.

The Little Rockies plant currently employs six people, but Mingneau says he expects that up to 15 full-time workers will be needed in the coming year. The business is run by a seven-member board of directors headed by Fort Belknap Vice Chairman Darrell Martin, who is the only tribal government official on the panel.

"We're basically separated from the tribe," said Mingneau. "They still own it, but we'll operate it on a daily basis. Once we get going here, it's going to be a madhouse. There's huge potential, but what we don't want to do is get too big too fast. We want to crawl before we run."

As part of its overall employment package, the packing plant has instated a program that uses low-income tribal members who are provided transportation to and from the off-reservation facility and are given on-the-job training while breaking into the profession.

According to DuBray, the only other tribally owned bison processing operation is run by the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation in South Dakota.

Joanna Murray, a tribal biologist who works with Cheyenne River's bison program, says the small Pte Hca Ka facility, built with a USDA grant, was originally designed so it could be towed behind a semi-truck to various locations for slaughtering. Now the unit, located about 45 miles outside the tribal capital of Eagle Butte, is stationary to comply with federal regulations.

The plant, initially modeled on a foreign operation for killing and processing reindeer, can only handle about 20 bison a week because of freezer limitations, Murray explained. But USDA recently issued official certification for the facility, which could prompt expansion plans.

"We're excited to get rolling on it," Murray said. "It's been a long process certifying it."

Cheyenne River currently has nearly 3,000 bison in its tribally run herd, the largest operation of its kind in the United States. Murray said the business caters to a wide array of vendors and already does limited sales of live animals to the USDA.

The federal agency, however, has come under fire from the ITBC and others for allegedly cutting tribal producers out of about $3 million worth of new contracts for buffalo meat. The meat, ironically, is being purchased by the government for distribution in reservation commodities programs.

DuBray said his group believes the contracts were improperly let. An administrative appeal was filed to halt the contracting before it concluded, but he said the ITBC action has so far been ignored by the agency and the money has already been allocated.

"We're considering what our options are," DuBray added. "We're seriously considering filing suit, because this has been going on a long time. It's really too bad, because it's a really good program that could help out a lot of tribes."