ASHLAND — It's a new era of bison management for the Northern Cheyenne, after the tribe hired its first buffalo manager in several years.
Brandon Small started as buffalo manager in March and is in the full-swing of his new role managing the herd of about 300 animals, the majority of which are descendants of a herd that had been roaming reservation lands since the 1970s.
"Seeing them go unmanaged and treated poorly, malnourished, no water, they were traveling 10, 15 miles a day for water, having to walk through multiple fences along the way to get to that water. It hurt to see that happen," Small said.
Before he was hired as buffalo manager, Small, who is originally from Lame Deer, started spending his time observing the herd and behavior patterns while he was still working at the Rosebud coal mine in Colstrip. He noticed a need for fencing and reliable water sources.
“I decided I couldn't just stand by and watch our buffalo be neglected and decided that somebody needed to do it. And even if it wasn't me, I decided to develop a management plan and write a proposal," Small said.
Small drafted a multi-year bison management plan and submitted it to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council in January 2023.
The tribe accepted the proposal, hiring Small as the first Northern Cheyenne buffalo manager in several years.
“The tribe being able to do this to help this buffalo herd be managed correctly. And by correctly, I mean not allowing them to inbreed, giving them the best water we can, giving them the best forage we can, and giving the maximum amount of space we can to do what they do and just be buffalo is important," Small said.
Tribes own and manage bison on all seven of Montana's reservations, and Small hopes down the road they can grow the herd to be larger and more expansive.
Right now, Small and his two team members are figuring out how to establish reliable water sources and fences on a new 15,000-acre pasture and better manage herd health and genetics. The crew is building a large corral that can hold the animals, so they can be counted and tested for genetic variability.
Due to years of inbreeding and the limitations of the pasture's forage, Small says the herd will be scaled down through harvesting animals, and then re-grown.
“Being able to have a good, healthy herd to protect and use is important for me and for Natives across America," Small said. "They were an animal that we relied on for food, shelter and for our ceremonies to carry us through when times were tough for us. And being able to use them now still today is just amazing. I hope we can continue to use them for years to come and for future generations.”
Small says meat from animal harvests will be distributed to community members and he hopes through hunting and processing, to get the herd to be self-sufficient. He also hopes the herd can help replenish the local prairie.
"I am totally, 100% convinced that bison are the natural regenerators of the soil and land just by their natural grazing habits, by the way they walk, by the way they go on water, by the way they graze," Small said. "Bison don't like to be in the same spot very long. They like to move. They move a lot more than cattle do. And I think if we use that in the right way, we can start restoring some of our areas, some of our lands back to what they used to be."
Small likes to share posts, pictures and information about how the herd is doing through Facebook. You can follow along at Northern Cheyenne Bison.