“The fear for injury or death to hunters is real”

For Immediate Release:
January 19, 2023

James Holt, BFC Executive Director
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Tom Woodbury, Communications Director
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Jackson Doyel, Wildlife Biologist
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Gardiner, Montana:

The shooting of a tribal hunter near Gardiner on Tuesday was clearly accidental.

It was also clearly foreseeable, and critics of the canned hunt are saying that hunter’s blood is on Governor Gianforte’s and the Montana Department of Livestock’s hands.

bfc Hunter Accident

Tribal hunter Jackson Wak Wak of the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu ) Tribe was dressing a downed buffalo in the field when he was struck by a bullet from a high-powered rifle — apparently fired by a state hunter nearby in the process of taking down his own buffalo. As can be seen from the photo at the left, Wak Wak’s injury missed vital organs by only inches.

Hunters are forced by Montana’s insistence on severely curtailing bison migrations north of the Yellowstone National Park boundary to take their prey in close proximity to other hunters, to roads, and to residential areas in and near the town of Gardiner.

Wak Wak’s mother, Mary Jane Oatman, issued the following statement Wednesday on behalf of her family and her tribe:

"My son Jackson is a proud descendant of Chief Looking Glass, the Chief who secured our rights to continue our traditional harvest of subsistence. I am upset that state and federal politics put my son in the line of fire. No other person besides our Treaty tribes, with our historical and cultural ties to the area, should even be there exercising that right. Our tribal hunts go back thousands of years... far longer than the cattle industry that drives these political agencies. As a mother, I demand that a federal investigation take place regarding my son being shot. Had the tables been turned, I can almost guarantee that my son would be locked up in Park County on some sort of charges. My family is just glad that he’s okay. My son honestly feels like he took a bullet for the entire Nimiipuu Nation."

As a matter of public record, Montana’s officials have been on notice for some time now that the unreasonable restrictions imposed on the hunt and on bison movements outside of the Park, at the behest of the livestock industry, could result in hunter injury or even death:

  • In a letter dated Jan. 27, 2017, the Chief of Law Enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Dave Loewen, informed his Region 3 Supervisor, Sam Sheppard, that “the safety issues” associated with the confined hunt near Beattie Gulch “continue to escalate and the fear for injury or death to hunters is real.”

  • More recently, as reported by Buffalo Field Campaign, Quincy Ellenwood, the Nez Perce Tribe's representative in the management process, openly challenged Montana’s Department of Livestock representatives during a public meeting last November:
  • “We don’t want to be part of a confrontational hunt,” Ellenwood told Mike Honeycutt, the Executive Officer for Montana’s Department of Livestock.

  • “It’s chaos out there,” Ellenwood continued. “Public safety is huge. Ultimately I don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” said Ellenwood. “There’s times I have to pull my hunters back… Do you care about that?”

  • Neither Honeycutt nor State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski were willing to address Ellenwood’s concerns with hunter safety, which are the product of high competition among members from several tribes and the state of Montana for a limited number of wild bison in highly confined hunting zones.

At one point, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly admonished the Livestock officials to address Ellenwood directly, rather than ignoring him and addressing their unresponsive comments to Sholly. But just as they have ignored the safety concerns of Montana’s own Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials, who issue dozens of tags every year for Yellowstone’s bison, Honeycutt and Zaluski made clear at the November meeting that Gianforte cares only about advancing livestock interests to the exclusion of concerns over clear and obvious threats to human life and the safety of both hunters and the people of Gardiner. Residents in the past have reported stray bullets from the hunt zone hitting their homes.

The hunt is also forced to take place along public highways. Wildlife biologist Jackson Doyel with Buffalo Field Campaign has filmed hunters firing at bison towards the highway, placing drivers at obvious risk. [video available upon request]

In a recent report that preceded Tuesday’s accidental shooting, Doyel pointed to “the shameful conditions created by the State of Montana that forces these sacred beings to run the gauntlet in the kill box known as Beattie Gulch, a small stretch of land near the Corwin Bridge, and Cutler Meadow.”

“The State of Montana has forced hunters’ hands,” Doyel continued, “by obstructing habitat expansion in the Gallatin and Custer National Forests, and remaining intolerant of our National Mammal’s natural right to migrate throughout the Yellowstone ecosystem.”

BFC Executive Director James Holt, who is also a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, echoed tribal leaders demands for more habitat for wild buffalo, so that treaty hunts for buffalo can proceed much like state hunting for elk does. “Why does Montana force treaty hunters to take buffalo in full view of public roads and local communities?” Holt asked. “Why are hunters crammed into such small galleries that they end up accidentally shooting one another?”

Doyel complained in his report that the Governor and his Department of Livestock have “shown no willingness to remedy the situation, in spite of public and hunter safety concerns, intentionally perpetuating these unnecessarily harmful conditions.”

Montana’s Unlawful Interference With Tribal Hunting

According to Buffalo Field Campaign’s Communication Director, Tom Woodbury, “There is zero scientific rationale for treating migrating bison any different than migrating elk or antelope." Park Superintendent Cam Sholly made the same point last year in response to the Department of Livestock’s senseless killing of a lone bull bison that had migrated all the way up to Paradise Valley near Pray, Montana.

Recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing the primacy of off-reservation Tribal treaty hunting rights calls into question Montana’s continuing insistence on severely restricting the natural migrations of Yellowstone’s buffalo into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Specifically, the Court in 2019 ruled that Treaty Tribes retain a “virtually unqualified right” to hunt on National Forest lands. See: Herrera v. Wyoming (PDF). The Court reinforced an earlier decision finding that a Tribes’ exercise of off-reservation hunting and fishing rights, which are considered to the supreme law of the land under Article Six of the U.S. Constitution, is “immune” from State regulation. See: 443 U.S. 658, at 682 (1979).

The only permissible grounds for a state interference with Tribal treaty rights (p. 770, PDF), according to the Supreme Court, is where the state can show that its actions are necessary to conserve the species. The State of Montana has never expressed any interest in conserving wild bison, as opposed to protecting private livestock interests, and its outdated expression of intolerance towards the presence of wild bison throughout the Custer-Gallatin National Forest appears to be contrary to Supreme Court edicts in Herrera, which involved tribal hunting on the Bighorn National Forest, and related cases.

According to Woodbury, “It is only a matter of time before the State of Montana’s anti-wildlife stance is struck down as unlawful.