Title

Vital Resource: Fort Belknap’s Struggle to Secure the Bison as the Future of Its Economy

Presenter Information

Victoria Edwards

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

The American bison has been a cultural and historical icon for Plains Indians for centuries, but on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana the animal is more than just a tie to the past – it offers hope for the reservation's future. Reintroduced in 1974, the bison managed by Fort Belknap’s Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes have become a symbol of economic progress. But the path forward has not been easy. I traveled to Fort Belknap in the spring of 2011 and found the reservation struggling to restore bison as a natural resource. In 2002, the tribes established The Little Rockies Meat Packing Company in Malta – the first tribally owned, U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat packing plant in the country. In 2006, the tribes created The Little River Smokehouse on Fort Belknap Agency to process and sell buffalo products from the tribes’ herd of more than 400 animals. Today, both projects face hardships. The meat packing plant has recently shifted its focus to processing beef from local ranchers’ cattle herds. The smokehouse has yet to turn a profit, and it shut down temporarily in March 2011 because operators were unable to fill orders or cover operating costs. My in-depth story titled “Vital Resource,” examines the reservation’s effort to break into the growing market for buffalo meat despite a history of poor management of the meat packing plant and smokehouse, tensions with neighboring landowners, and protests from state lawmakers who oppose the tribes’ plan to import more bison from Yellowstone National Park.

Category

Humanities

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Vital Resource: Fort Belknap’s Struggle to Secure the Bison as the Future of Its Economy

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The American bison has been a cultural and historical icon for Plains Indians for centuries, but on the Fort Belknap Reservation in north-central Montana the animal is more than just a tie to the past – it offers hope for the reservation's future. Reintroduced in 1974, the bison managed by Fort Belknap’s Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes have become a symbol of economic progress. But the path forward has not been easy. I traveled to Fort Belknap in the spring of 2011 and found the reservation struggling to restore bison as a natural resource. In 2002, the tribes established The Little Rockies Meat Packing Company in Malta – the first tribally owned, U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat packing plant in the country. In 2006, the tribes created The Little River Smokehouse on Fort Belknap Agency to process and sell buffalo products from the tribes’ herd of more than 400 animals. Today, both projects face hardships. The meat packing plant has recently shifted its focus to processing beef from local ranchers’ cattle herds. The smokehouse has yet to turn a profit, and it shut down temporarily in March 2011 because operators were unable to fill orders or cover operating costs. My in-depth story titled “Vital Resource,” examines the reservation’s effort to break into the growing market for buffalo meat despite a history of poor management of the meat packing plant and smokehouse, tensions with neighboring landowners, and protests from state lawmakers who oppose the tribes’ plan to import more bison from Yellowstone National Park.