Skip to main content

Tribe Accused of Mistreatment of Bison

NEW TOWN, N.D. - The Three Affiliated Tribes are embroiled in a controversy
over the alleged discovery of dead and malnourished bison on their ranges.

The bison project is a commercial operation that sells meat and other
products across the country and employ a number of people from across the
reservation. The reports have affected not only the business, but employee
morale, tribal officials said.

Kristi Pennington, a veterinarian, who was invited to investigate the herds
by a former buffalo project employee and newspaper reporter, said she
discovered the carcasses of 27 bison that had died and were left to the
elements and scavengers, while some in feedlots were showing signs of
malnourishment from lack of food that was stored nearby. Her report stated
she found most of the dead bison at the Mandaree or Skunk Bay site on the
Fort Berthold Reservation.

Many of the bison were fine, some suffered from winter stress, but mostly
they were the older ones. The younger buffalo were the ones showing the
effects of lack of food, such as protruding hip bones and loss of hair
other than the normal spring shedding, Pennington said.

Tribal officials deny these accusations. Veterinarian Bob Nelson, hired by
the Holding Company that manages the buffalo, said the bison at the Figure
Four Ranch looked average to good and compared favorably to other bison at
this time of year.

He did state in a report that there were too many buffalo for the grass
available, that the animals should not have to be fed hay at all and also
stated, "you are not running a zoo but hopefully an economically sound
buffalo ranch."

Nelson also said the herd that was in confinement did not do as well as the
ones who were on range. There is a pecking order, he said, and they will do
poorly regardless of feed amount and quality.

"The chairman and I drove through the Figure Four Ranch pasture and found
only seven carcasses. One buffalo was injured while loading in a truck and
had to be put down, others were from normal winter loss," said Glenda
Embry, spokesperson for the tribes.

"The buffalo are no better nor worse than those on Teddy Roosevelt Park,"
Embry said.

The tribes receive the overflow bison from Teddy Roosevelt State Park under
a five-year contract that expires in 2006. Park Superintendent Valerie
Naylor said they were concerned and that an investigation would be

Allegations of mismanagement of the bison came to light after a newspaper
article appeared in the New Town News and in the Bismarck Tribune.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes and president of the
National Congress of American Indians, invited all the tribal council
members to visit the bison herds. He said in a letter to the council that
he was proud of the dedication the employees had toward their work with the
herds. The bison provide jobs to many people in the Mandaree area and
across the reservation he said, and those jobs, because of adverse
publicity were in jeopardy.

Two former bison project employees have been accused of spreading false
information. Dawn Charging, as interim editor of the New Town News, wrote
the first story. Ted Siers, a five-year employee of the bison project
submitted a 14-page document charging mismanagement and neglect that caused
the deaths of the bison.

Charging also asked Pennington to the reservation to investigate the herds.

Hall said that the comments were fabrications, coming from disgruntled

Siers claimed that employees of the project spent time watching DVDs and
lounging around, not paying attention to feeding the bison that were
confined in pens. He also said that project manager Pete Hale was rarely
around to let Paul White Owl Sr. run the project. The bison were managed in
such a way that caused them to injure each other, Siers wrote.

Hale did not return phone calls.

White Owl Sr. is the project foreman. He stated in response to Siers' claim
that the buffalo were not mistreated, starved or neglected. He also stated
that Siers was the one who was "lazy, who didn't want to work."

Siers said he knew the tribe would try to discredit him, but he was more
concerned about the animals.

Marcus Wells Jr., tribal councilman, said the council is very concerned,
especially after the notice last year to reduce the herd.

Pennington acted on behalf of the state veterinarian, Larry Shuler. This is
the second year in a row Pennington conducted an exam. She said the tribe
has made good progress in a year. In 2003 the tribe was told to reduce the
herd from 1,300 head because of the lack of adequate pasture. This year,
according to Scott Wilson, holding company manger for the bison project,
there are 660 head in two locations, Mandaree, and the Figure Four Ranch,
which is located off reservation.

"There are no problems and we have nothing to hide," Wilson said. "The
buffalo are well taken care of. We invited the [tribal] council to come out
and see for themselves. There is no truth to the stories."

Wilson said the papers ran pictures of the bone yard. Bones are frequently
left to sun dry for future sales by MHA Buffalo Enterprises. The enterprise
sells meat, jerky and hides across the country.

He said they count on the buffalo for sales and would not mistreat them.
"Our bison are top of the market. It's frustrating that we are continuing
to battle false stories. He said he did not know the two employees who made
the issue public and didn't know any reason why they would do so.

"Maybe they want to hurt our market, hurt us," Wilson said.

Hall said that two companies who did business with MHA Buffalo enterprises
have stopped based on the newspaper articles.

The tribe-hired veterinarian, Dr. Bob Nelson, said he looked at the herd
and didn't see any dead animals. He did see the bone pile, which
represented animals that had been dead for more than a year, the result of

He said the bison at the Figure Four Ranch were at "100 percent," but the
Mandaree operation needed improvement. The animals were held in feeding

Pennington said that she saw four animals that had been dead from three to
eight months at one site. At another site another four animals were found;
one was only dead for a week, another two weeks and the others up to eight
months. At a third site she found five animals, one dead less than three
months the other more than three months and up to eight months.

Another 14 carcasses were found, as she stated, along the borders of the
trees and in the trees. Those animals had been dead for up to a year. She
said that some carcasses had been ravaged by scavengers, skin was left on
the bones and one had been skinned. Most of the animals were less than
three years-old.

"The general condition of the animals was poor. The older bulls and cows
were in fair condition. The younger stock was thin to emaciated with ribs
and hip bones very evident. Hair loss was also present," Pennington stated.

Pennington's conclusion was: "The buffalo being cared for by the Three
Affiliated Tribes at the Mandaree Buffalo Project and the Figure Four Ranch
are suffering from malnutrition."

Nelson said that any death loss was not unreasonable. An old cow that was
put down was injured as a result of buffalo behavior, he said.

Hall said he was not disturbed that an investigation was conducted, but
that it was done in secret. He said that Pennington and Charging both
trespassed on tribal land by crossing over a fence, and that he welcomed
state inspections on the Figure Four Ranch where the state has

The tribe argues that the past winter was exceptionally harsh and that the
dead animals they saw were not more than would be found in an average year.
As Nelson stated, not more than what Teddy Roosevelt Park suffers in a
given year.

The buffalo held in confinement at the Mandaree or Skunk Bay location will
be moved to the Figure Four Ranch and will be allowed to graze naturally,
Embry said. She added that the herd will stay at that location to let the
Mandaree pasture rest and that the project was looking for more pasture.