Raising livestock in Blackfeet Country is always a somewhat risky affair, with many uncontrollable aspects impacting the enterprise. Weather conditions are the most obvious things impacting the industry, but sometimes governments and bureaucracy create problems of their own.
According to Joe Kipp, president of the Blackfeet Nation Stock Growers Association, there are four kinds of BIA leases. The first is an Open Bid where anyone can bid on a unit. There is also an Owners Use Permit where at least 51 percent of the people owning the unit agree on a lease. Negotiated Unit Ranges are a third kind where an owner of at least 51 percent negotiates with his neighbors to lease the unit. And finally there are Allocated Range Units which are located on Tribally Allocated land. Allocations are decided by a committee of Tribal Members appointed by the Tribe. Allocated Range Units are charged a flat rate in order to “create peace in the community because there is no bidding, and leases are awarded based on need,” Kipp said.
Rules for qualifying for an Allocated Range Unit include owning livestock, owning at least 60 percent of the carrying capacity of the field, using the Unit only from June 1 to Oct. 31, and not exceeding the carrying capacity of the Unit.
If a person using an Allocated Range Unit comes up short of the number of animals that would be allowed, he can negotiate with a person who has no Allocated Range Unit for the remaining number of animals. Allocated Range Units are leased for 10 years, and over several 10-year periods a member can build up the number of animals and apply for more Allocated Range Units.
The last set of Allocated Range Units expired in 2018 so there had to be a renewal for 2019.
Every 10 years, everyone reapplies for their Allocated Range Unit. The Allocation Committee scores Members according to several guidelines, including the number of animals on the lease, not trespassing on other leases, not overgrazing and being up to date on payments, among other criteria. The committee gives points to the preexisting permit holder which supplies continuity to the program.
In human terms, Kipp said it’s like a family where the permit holders are tenants, and the animals are housed on the lease. Then, every 10 years they are checked to see if they are being “good neighbors.”
If a member drops out of the program, whether due to breaking the rules, having died or simply quit the business, the unit becomes available to others, who are usually younger people who are working to get enough livestock to qualify for a unit. As these units become available, younger folks get preference so they won’t have to run their livestock on their parents’ units.
That’s how it’s supposed to work.
But last year, the government shutdown created a backlog in the process, and in response the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council decided that instead of the usual 10-year period, they would only allocate units for one year.
The Allocation Committee is not paid apart from a modest stipend for their work. They must examine each file for compliance with the rules, and with more than 400 range units and 300 families involved, “The Committee works hard to make fair, impartial judgments,” Kipp said. Committee members are prohibited from giving themselves additional leases, he noted.
Because of the shutdown and the one-year allocation, “some important communication with people was lost; some people didn’t know, and a few people were left out of the process because it was late,” Kipp said. “Some were very heart wrenching situations.”
Renewals are usually due by Jan. 1; the Committee then approves them and sends them to the BIA for their approval to set up the units. But if the Tribe is late, as in this case, each renewal must be hand-generated which eats up more time.
In this situation, some elders missed out and didn’t get their renewals in on time. Some other folks had units that were renewed, but they couldn’t pay for it because of the shutdown, and because no animals may be grazed until payment is received, they were kept off the units in the meantime.
Even if folks managed to pay, they still lost time because of the shutdown.
“This is a big financial problem for these folks,” Kipp said. “All 300 people probably had emotional and financial stress because of this.”
Additionally, the BTBC hasn’t renewed the Allocation Committee to work on it. “We’re looking at two years in what should have been a one-year process,” Kipp said.
“So I hope the Tribal Council will do its part,” Kipp said. “If we have a nine-year period, not 10, we’ll know we can plan ahead. The Tribal Council needs to appoint five Tribal Members - probably people with units - honest, upstanding people who know they have no advantage. Three of the last five have reapplied, and I hope to get them. They know the system and who missed the deadline through no fault of their own.”
With deadlines approaching and in some cases having already passed, it’s important to get the situation sorted out quickly. “If I have to sell my livestock because of there being no range unit available in June, that’s the worst time of year to try to sell. It’s like a fire sale; I’d probably get 50 percent of their value,” Kipp said.