By Matthew Brown -- Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A pair of Idaho-based American Indian tribes want to hunt bison in parts of Montana and Wyoming near Yellowstone National Park. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes would become the third Indian group in modern times to exercise their 19th century treaty rights by sponsoring an off-reservation bison hunt.
Tribal leaders have been in discussions with state officials about starting an annual hunt in Montana beginning with the winter of 2008 - '09. No harvest numbers have yet been revealed. The tribes also are seeking a federal permit to harvest up to five bison annually from the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyo., for ceremonial purposes.
''It is important for the tribes to continue practicing, teaching and preserving our unique tribal way of life in our traditional hunting areas,'' tribal leaders said Oct. 31 in a statement to The Associated Press. ''The tribes have resided and hunted bison and other big game in these areas since time immemorial.''
Montana officials said they are reviewing the tribes' proposal but are not certain if their treaty rights apply in the parts of Montana where bison now live.
In Wyoming, National Elk Refuge manager Steve Kallin said the refuge was considering the tribe's ceremonial bison harvest plan but had no timeline for a decision.
Bison were once common across much of North America and numbered in the millions. In the mid-1800s, as railroads stretched into the bison's habitat and brought in waves of European settlers, they were hunted to near-extinction.
They survive now in a small number of isolated herds. The Yellowstone herds, about 4,700 animals, are the largest.
Bob Lane, chief counsel for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, said there was no dispute over whether the Shoshone-Bannock hunted bison around Yellowstone historically. But he said it was unclear if that included the parts of Montana where bison are now found.
Yet Lane and other state officials acknowledged that their authority over the tribes is limited. Any confrontation over the legality of a Shoshone-Bannock bison hunt would likely end up in court, Lane said.
In their Oct. 31 statement, tribal leaders said states have no power to interpret federal treaty rights.
''The tribes fully expect Montana to honor federal treaty commitments,'' the statement said.
In letters to state officials, Shoshone-Bannock Chairman Alonzo Coby said the tribe's hunting rights were guaranteed in the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. That agreement with the federal government said the tribes ''shall have the right to hunt on the unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon.''
Coby wrote that the members of the tribes had regularly hunted and traveled in southwestern Montana. Tribal elders, he continued, tell ''stories of regular trips for buffalo and horses, as well as for social interaction into the Yellowstone and Big Horn regions.''
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Shane Colton said the state wanted further evidence. ''They have not yet demonstrated that they have treaty rights that would allow them to hunt bison.''
Fish, Wildlife and Parks is considering hiring a consultant, Historical Research Associates of Missoula, to research the tribes' claim.
Members of the Nez Perce Tribe of central Idaho hunted for bison outside the Yellowstone area for the past two winters and plan to return again this year. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will hold their first bison hunt in the area this winter.
Montana issued 140 bison permits to the general public last winter, but most went unfilled as a mild winter kept most bison inside Yellowstone Park. Only 31 animals were taken in the state's hunt. The Nez Perce reported taking 26.
This year, the state is initially making 38 permits available, and could issue up to 100 more depending on how many bison come out of the park.
Montana officials asked the tribes to limit their hunts this year to an identical number of permits - a proposed 50/50 split in which the tribes combined would account for half the total harvest. Tribal leaders have not formally agreed to that deal, but said they intend to cooperate on bison management.
Salish and Kootenai spokesman Rob McDonald said his tribe, like the Nez Perce, would regulate its hunt with tribal fish and game officers. He said his tribe had no objection to the Shoshone-Bannock holding a hunt in the same area.
''Obviously we're talking about a potentially limited number of bison, but any tribe that can prove their case to the state should do this,'' McDonald said.