Oregon tribes pursue first bison hunt in century

By Shannon Dininny

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Jim Marsh a Cayuse Indian from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore., walks away from a bison that he shot and killed, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, near Gardiner, Mont. For the first time in more than 100 years, the Umatillas are able to hunt bison just outside Yellowstone National Park, restoring a centuries-old tradition guaranteed by a treaty signed in 1855.

Ted S. Warren, Associated Press

GARDINER, Mont. — Knee deep in snow, Francis Marsh crouched behind a boulder and peered through the rifle scope at his target 40 yards away. He breathed in deeply to calm his racing heart.

Picturesque mountain peaks rose behind him. The sunlight glittered off the snow, and all was quiet and still.

Ever so slowly, he exhaled, waited, then pulled the trigger.

The bison dropped to its big belly. Francis gasped for air — and with that shot became one of the first members of an Oregon Indian tribe to hunt buffalo in more than a century.

For years, Jim Marsh — Francis' father — had heard stories about his great-grandmother's buffalo-hide teepee, the last of its kind in their family. He'd seen photos of it, but buffalo were a thing of the past.

The Cayuse Indians once traveled hundreds of miles on horseback to hunt bison, a lean meat rich in protein and high in cultural significance. Those hunts ended in the late 1800s, as federal agents restricted travel from their reservation on the Columbia River plateau and the decimated bison herds were largely confined to Yellowstone National Park.

Jim Marsh's great-grandfather was the last family member to travel across the Rocky Mountains to hunt bison.

But in 2006, the state of Montana gave permission to the Nez Perce of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of northwest Montana to hunt bison on federal lands outside Yellowstone.

Hunting is illegal in the park, but during harsh winters, bison migrate to lower elevations outside the park in search of food. The tribes' 1855 treaties with the federal government grant them the right to hunt on traditional hunting grounds on open, unclaimed land, such as the current day Gallatin National Forest bordering the park.

Marsh soon accompanied Nez Perce relatives on a hunt, tagging along to watch and help. The significance of a tradition long lost to him immediately struck home.

The Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla tribes also have an 1855 treaty that relegated them to the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Ore., but also guaranteed hunting rights on aboriginal lands. Marsh pushed the tribe's wildlife program to seek access, prodding them when paperwork lay dormant. He ran for and won election to the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"Our tribe has been hunting buffalo for centuries. It's one of our traditional foods. They were just returning from buffalo country before the treaty was signed," Marsh said, recalling the Indian chiefs who cited buffalo more than a dozen times in their treaty. "It was important to me to try to return that tradition to my people."

Montana granted permission last fall after months of negotiations — and to the Shoshone-Bannock of Idaho as well — and the tribe issued permits for hunts beginning in January.

The buffalo buried its head in the snow, safely digging for grass in a no-hunting zone behind a U.S. Forest Service compound.

Twenty minutes earlier, the hunters had excitedly bounded out of their pickups to snap photos. Now they were forced to acknowledge that this big bull wasn't going anywhere.

Marsh gathered his team: Francis, his 23-year-old son, Joe Ball, David Sams and his nephew, Chuck Sams, and Cody Nowland. All were seasoned hunters of deer, elk, sheep and cougar. None had ever shot a bison.

"We'll just keep an eye on him," Marsh told them. It wasn't yet 8 a.m.

The crew drove back down the snow-covered road and over the hill, where a herd of bison slept and grazed several hundred yards away. The hunters climbed out of the trucks and assessed the scene. And waited.

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