Slaughterhouse solution 

Can bison restore the tribes?

Plagued with poverty and unemployment, leaders of the Fort Belknap Indian community are confident that a meat processing plant they opened this fall on Montana’s Hi-Line can help bring health and prosperity to their own people and beyond.

The Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes’ Little Rockies Meat Packing Co. outside Malta is being retooled to handle all types of livestock, including buffalo raised on the nearby Fort Belknap Reservation. In time, tribal officials hope the operation can become one of the top bison processing centers in the country.

The facility was purchased for $50,000 at a bank foreclosure sale last December. In the months since, the tribes have invested about $25,000 in renovations to improve the plant’s efficiency and bring the facility up to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, says General Manager Leonard Mingneau.

The Denver-based Native American National Bank, which also has offices on the nearby Blackfeet Reservation, approved a $150,000 loan for the plant’s purchase and to jumpstart initial operations. Another $100,000 loan is pending, Mingneau says.

USDA in late September issued its certification for the plant, and a federal inspector is based on-site to monitor daily operations. Along with slaughtering and processing small numbers of bison at present, the business offers custom killing, cutting and packaging of livestock from Indian and non-Indian producers. Arrangements have already been made with the Montana Jerky Co. in Columbia Falls to produce dry meat, and plans for a tribally run sausage production center and retail outlet are being discussed. Gift packs are now being produced by the Chalet Market Sausage Co., headquartered near Bozeman.

The Fort Belknap Tribes, which count about 750 buffalo in their own herd, are working closely with the South Dakota-based InterTribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) to further develop markets for their products.

According to ITBC Executive Director Fred DuBray, the organization is working with Congress on a proposed $500,000 appropriation to implement a new marketing initiative for its 51 member nations, which include the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes, the Blackfeet Tribe and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In all, ITBC officials say, tribes across the nation today manage about 15,000 head of bison.

DuBray and Mingneau say it makes sense for American Indians to be in the bison business. There’s the strong cultural component, especially for Northern Plains tribes, and buffalo meat is deemed more healthy for consumers than beef, due to its low fat content and richness in iron and other vitamins.

“They don’t get the marbling that beef does,” says Mingneau, who has been in the Montana meat business for more than 30 years. “There’s also no gamey taste.”

The Little Rockies plant currently employs six people, but Mingneau says he expects to need up to 15 full-time workers in the coming year. The business is run by a seven-member board of directors headed by Fort Belknap Vice Chairman Darrell Martin, the only tribal government official on the panel.

“We’re basically separated from the tribe,” says Mingneau. “They still own it, but we’ll operate it on a daily basis. Once we get going here, it’s going to be a madhouse. There’s huge potential, but what we don’t want to do is get too big too fast. We want to crawl before we run.”

As part of its overall staffing package, the packing plant has instated a program that employs low-income tribal members who are provided with transportation to and from the off-reservation facility and on-the-job training.

According to DuBray, the only other tribally-owned bison processing operation in the nation is run by the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation in South Dakota. That tribe has nearly 3,000 bison in its herd, making it the largest operation of its kind in the United States. Biologist Joanna Murray says the business caters to a wide array of vendors and already does limited sales of live animals to the USDA.

The federal agency, however, has come under fire from the ITBC and others for allegedly cutting tribal producers out of about $3 million in new contracts for buffalo meat. The meat, ironically, is being purchased by the government for distribution through reservation commodities programs.

DuBray says his group believes the contracts were improperly let. An administrative appeal was filed to halt the contracting before it concluded, but DuBray says the ITBC action has so far been ignored by the agency, and the money has already been allocated.

“We’re considering what our options are,” DuBray adds. “We’re seriously considering filing suit, because this has been going on a long time. It’s really too bad, because it’s a really good program that could help out a lot of tribes.”

Meanwhile, Fort Belknap tribal leaders are also working to complete a complex water agreement with state and federal officials that they hope will fuel a variety of business projects, including an ethanol production plant. The Montana Legislature and Gov. Judy Martz approved the compact in 2001, and now terms of the settlement are being negotiated with the U.S. Department of Interior.

The agreement quantifies federal reserved water rights for the tribes on and off the 652,000-acre reservation, sets allocation strategies and authorities, and provides a blueprint for the development of new dams and diversions. Completion at the state level opened the door for federal talks on compensation for past natural resource damages in the Milk River Basin. According to tribal contract attorney Thomas Fredericks, the tribes want about $200 million for mitigation. Government negotiators argue the figure should be closer to $100 million.

Whatever the outcome, Fort Belknap officials would like to plow at least some of the settlement into an alternative fuels facility.

Bozeman consultant Michael Utter says funding is now being sought for feasibility studies. One idea is to build a plant that would include a large cattle feedlot to utilize organic byproducts. Manure from the operation could potentially generate energy to run the entire complex. A similar plant is being discussed with another tribe in South Dakota.

“We believe this project has great potential to help the regional economy,” Utter explains.

“I think this can work,” Fredericks says. “We’re not building a widget and competing with Chicago. We’re adding value to our existing agriculture.”

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