April 14, 2013 in City

Spokane Tribe leader fined for poaching bison in Montana

By and The Spokesman-Review
 
Hunting rights

Four tribes have asserted treaty rights to hunt bison in Montana:

• Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho

• Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana

• Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Oregon

• Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Idaho

The vice chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians poached two bison north of Yellowstone National Park in February and lied about his identity to officers investigating the hunt, court records show.

Rodney W. Abrahamson, 41, was cited for poaching and obstructing while hunting with members of the Nez Perce Tribe near Gardiner, Mont. He was fined nearly $3,500. Abrahamson’s cousin also was cited on a poaching charge during the hunt.

The Nez Perce Tribe holds an annual bison hunt outside the national park where the animals are protected. Nez Perce members have hunting rights that are protected by an 1855 treaty.

But Abrahamson is not a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Spokane Tribe does not have bison hunting rights in Montana, said Sam Sheppard, who oversees enforcement of bison hunting as the warden captain in southwest Montana for the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department. Sheppard said he learned during the investigation that Abrahamson is married to a member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Attempts made to reach Abrahamson, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council, and Chairman Rudy Peone were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday. The business council is the elected government representing the tribe.

Sheppard said tribal agencies work closely with the state to ensure a “safe and ethical hunt.” Tribal hunters understand that they must have tribe-issued identification to take part in bison hunts, he said.

“This was a very serious violation,” he said.

Tribal Councilman Greg Abrahamson, a former tribal chairman and a distant cousin of Rodney Abrahamson, said he heard rumors about the hunting incident but that he could not comment on it because he had no official information about the case.

On Feb. 21, two Montana wildlife officers came upon a group of hunters in the Eagle Creek area near Gardiner, Sheppard said.

They asked for the identification of one hunter who had just killed a bison; he claimed he was helping an older relative in the group who had wounded it earlier, Sheppard said.

When asked for his tribal ID, the man, Jacob Abrahamson, said he didn’t have one. He provided authorities with his name and was cited for hunting out of season. He paid $1,035 in fines and restitution, Sheppard said.

Reached Friday, Jacob Abrahamson said he is Rodney Abrahamson’s cousin. Asked if it was true that he finished off a bison that had been shot first by a Nez Perce tribal member and had provided his true name when asked by authorities, he said the narrative was “pretty close” to accurate. He declined to comment on the charges his cousin faces.

The wardens also asked for Rodney Abrahamson’s ID after he acknowledged he was the person who killed two other bison near the side of the road, Sheppard said. Rodney Abrahamson told wardens he couldn’t find his tribal ID and provided them with a false name, that of an actual member of the Nez Perce Tribe.

Wardens contacted Nez Perce tribal enforcement officers in Idaho and asked them to describe the man whose name Abrahamson gave.

“They told us that person he named looks significantly different than the man we had questioned,” Sheppard said.

The next day the two wardens returned to the site of the hunt and confronted Abrahamson, who provided his true identity, Sheppard said. He was cited for five misdemeanors: two counts of hunting out of season, two counts of possession of game taken out of season and one count of obstructing an investigation. Abrahamson drove to Gardiner and used an ATM to obtain $3,475 – the bond required for those charges. The figure includes $1,000 as the “restitution value” for the two animals, Sheppard said.

The Nez Perce Tribe’s Conservation Enforcement division seized some tribal members’ permits to participate in the hunt and issued some citations related to the incident, Sheppard said.

“Their enforcement took this situation very seriously and handled their enforcement end of it right along with us,” Sheppard said.

An official with the Conservation Enforcement division referred questions to the tribe’s legal office. Attempts made to reach a tribal attorney were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday.

Because Abrahamson failed to appear at the Feb. 28 court appearance, he was found guilty and forfeited the bond. He will lose his hunting and fishing rights in Montana for four years.

The animal meat was seized and donated to the Montana Food Bank.

“If you come and do that kind of stuff, you don’t get to keep what you shoot,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard said 249 bison were killed as part of the hunt over the winter. All but 37 of them were taken by tribal hunters. The state issues 44 bison tags unrelated to members of tribes with treaty rights. About 10,000 people apply for the tags, which are chosen by lottery, Sheppard said.

The hunt of the Yellowstone herd, which has about 4,200 bison, has long been a controversy in Montana, which reinstated a bison hunt in 2005. This year, some residents who live near where the bison are hunted were concerned that grizzly bears would be attracted to the area because hunters left numerous gut piles in the open, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

There is an ongoing debate within the state Legislature on expanding the range of wild bison or restricting it further. State leaders also are debating proposals to expand the hunt.

The number of bison killed differs greatly each year, largely based on the harshness of the winter. The herd stays most of the year in the park but migrates to lower elevations in Montana in the winter.

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