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American Prairie Reserve To Host Bison Hunt In 2018

A bison is held in a hydraulic squeeze chute on the American Prairie Reserve near Malta. While handlers keep the corral as quiet and low-stress as possible, occassionally yearlings bash their noses or break horns.
Nate Hegyi
A bison is held in a hydraulic squeeze chute on the American Prairie Reserve near Malta. While handlers keep the corral as quiet and low-stress as possible, occassionally yearlings bash their noses or break horns.

A sprawling, private nature reserve in northeastern Montana will host its first ever bison hunt early next year. But if you want to harvest a bison on the American Prairie Reserve, you either need to live near the reserve or be ready to pony up a lot of cash.  

Wild bison like their space… but every once in awhile, they need a big hug.

*Booming sound of bison smashing into squeeze chute*

That’s the sound of a young bull bison plowing into a giant, hydraulic hugging machine called a squeeze chute. I’m out here on the American Prairie Reserve near Malta, watching as a veterinarian prepares to give the animal a quick health check-up. Steam explodes from the bull’s nostrils.

Volunteers and workers from @AmericanPrairie perform a wild bison health check-up. The mechanical hug machine is designed to limit stress (ever see that Temple Grandin movie?) and the blood? Sometimes yearlings bash their noses. — Nate Hegyi (@natehegyi) December 1, 2017

After the check-up, this bison, along with more than 100 of his kin, will be shipped elsewhere because there are too many bison here on this property.

The 20,689-acre Sun Prairie North Unit has hit carrying capacity.

That’s one of the reasons why -- this January -- American Prairie Reserve is hosting its first ever public bison hunt. 

“We’re in a situation now where we don’t have any predators," says APR operations manager Damien Austin. "Hunting is one tool we can use to help maintain our genetics by removing some of those younger animals and older animals.”

APR has more than 800 bison spread across four massive properties in northeastern Montana. Some of those properties have hit carrying capacity and since the state of Montana regulates bison as livestock -- not wildlife -- a private, non-profit organization like APR can manage their own hunts.

So starting next year, APR will offer eight opportunities to harvest bison. Some of those bison will be sold via a special drawing to people living within the seven counties surrounding the reserve’s properties.

While the drawing is free to enter, winners will pay up to $650 to kill a bison.

Two chances to kill a bison will be sold via a live, online auction. The baseline bid is $650 and the auction is open to anyone in the world.

“We have no idea what they might go for but the idea there was focusing the majority of the opportunity for harvest on the local area but then also not excluding everyone,” Austin says.

While bison hold special cultural significance for many Native Americans in the Northern Plains, American Prairie Reserve will not set aside any tags for tribal members on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian Reservations.

NATE HEGYI: “Why not have specific opportunities for the tribes to hunt these animals, is that something that you’ve heard from them? A want, or…”

DAMIEN AUSTIN: “So it’s definitely something that we thought about, but by making it a local opportunity, it doesn’t single them out or single anybody out, it’s open to everybody and so anybody that’s within that seven county area can have the opportunity.”   

If they want to hunt a buffalo on APR land, they will need to enter the special drawing like everyone else. Austin adds that in future years, they may set aside tags for tribal members, youth hunters and veterans.

Robert Magnan, director of Fort Peck Fish and Game, welcomes APR’s buffalo harvest and says tribes on the Fort Peck reservation have their own bison herd they can hunt.

“We have drawings, and that’s free, and then the winner buys the buffalo,” he says.

Non-tribal members can also pay anywhere from one to $6,000 to harvest bison on the Fort Peck Reservation. This year, Magnan says more than 200 non-tribal members from across the country applied for a tag.

“I asked people why so many put in for it, and they said we’re probably the best ones for the average man to get a license because they’re not expensive,” he says. 

Unlike on the Fort Peck Reservation,  Austin says next year’s hunt on APR land is extremely limited. People can only take animals that predators like wolves and bears would kill, and Austin stresses it isn’t a trophy hunt. People can’t just kill a bison and lop of his head. They have to harvest the meat as well.

“We are encouraging people who might be iffy on their ability to process such a large animal to hire an outfitter for themselves, but that’s not something that APR is going to do,” he says.

Montana residents in Blaine, Chouteau, Fergus, Garfield, Petroleum, Phillips and Valley Counties can enter the drawing between January 1st and 15th.