Montana bison harvest challenges wounded Marine veteran

Bison
Photo credit Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

By BRETT FRENCH The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Late in life, Brian Meyer found his people. They are hunters.

“My parents were not those kinds of people,” he said.

Yet as a child growing up in Arizona he loved to shoot his BB gun and would fashion a bow and arrows from the string and wood of the kite his father bought him, The Billings Gazette reported.

“My dad said, ‘I don’t know about you, Brian,’” Meyer said and laughed.

A love of hunting is what propelled the 39-year-old to the remote prairie of Eastern Montana on a gray January day. Wounded Warriors Outdoors had arranged for Meyer to participate in a donated bison harvest on land owned by American Prairie Reserve. The nonprofit conservation organization has a goal of preserving the unique badlands ecosystem, but has faced opposition from some county officials and legacy ranchers.

It is wild country. Crows squawking and coyotes mournfully howling are the few sounds to pierce the heavy overcoat of silence on a calm day. The clean air feels as cool on gasping lungs as evaporating rubbing alcohol, and the sharp tang of sagebrush crushed under hiking boots adds a pinch of spice to the untamed atmosphere.

Bison

On the APR’s 27,000-acre Sun Prairie unit more than 400 bison roam the coulees, bluffs and creek bottoms. Two smaller herds occupy other areas for a total herd of about 800 bison. The conservation group now manages more than 419,600 acres in the region — about 315,000 of which are public and state lands leased for grazing bison and 13,000 head of cattle.

Although annual drawings have been held the past four years allowing 67 individuals to shoot a bison, the organization is adamant these are not hunts.

“This is a harvest not a hunt because the bison are livestock, and because they are in a fenced area,” said Beth Saboe, APR’s senior manager of media and government relations.

Despite the assertion, Garrett Long — who was assisting Meyer with the bison harvest — said the activity is “as close to hunting wild game as you can get.” Long has taken part in eight bison harvests on APR, and has seen the large animals run for three miles after being spooked. He compared the opportunity to antelope hunting: Spotting a herd in the distance across the open prairie, then planning a stalk to get within rifle range.

“The biggest thing I found is to take it very seriously,” Long explained to Meyer on the first morning of the outing.

People who think it will be easy because the bison are livestock are soon disillusioned, he added.

Quest

After hiking, scooting, belly crawling and sliding across more than six miles of cactus-riddled prairie, Meyer was ready for a rest.

“Anybody who thinks bison hunting is easy isn’t doing it right,” he said.

Sitting on a sagebrush-covered hillside, he aired out his residual limb from the silicone sleeve made to hold it in the cup of a prosthetic leg. Despite the physical difficulties of the day that left his shirt sweat-soaked and his thigh chafed raw, he gazed around the quiet tan countryside and said there was nowhere he would rather be.

“I’ve never had a bad time hunting,” he said.

Meyer is a triple amputee, losing most of his right leg, his right hand and three fingers on his left hand to a 2011 bomb blast. At the time, he was serving as a Marine Corps bomb disposal technician in Sangin, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom. While attempting to defuse an improvised bomb along a narrow road it detonated, hurling him through the air and shredding his limbs.

“It’s not such a big deal,” he said, adding that he was out of the hospital in 30 days.

Meyer served for 12 years, with a tour in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan. He enlisted when he was 19 years old on a prophetic date he later discovered was Purple Heart Day, Aug. 7.

It was through his prosthetist that Meyer learned about Wounded Warriors Outdoors, not to be confused with the separate entity the Wounded Warriors Project.

“They have always been a fixture in my recovering since I was an outpatient,” he said.

The nonprofit, founded in 2008 by Florida businessman Ron Raboud, provides opportunities for wounded veterans to go hunting and fishing, all expenses paid. Meyer’s first outing with the group was a 2013 black bear hunt in Canada.

“I had a phenomenal time,” he said. “I knew this was for me, but never had the opportunity to experience it.”

The program has since provided Meyer with hunts for whitetail, mule deer, blacktail deer, mountain lion, alligator, black bear and hogs. He’s also traveled to Alaska to fish and pursue caribou, which he called his “biggest gut check” physically because of the uneven tundra terrain. His favorite hunt is always the next one.

“By nature of being a bomb technician, I live day to day,” he said.

“Opportunity finds me,” Meyer added, and he’s given back by helping to promote the group and spread its gospel.

“Other people need to check out Wounded Warriors Outdoors,” he said.

Problems like post-traumatic stress can be helped by getting outdoors and being active, he added.

“That’s some of the best medicine you can take.”

At a 2016 gathering of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Raboud explained his reason for founding Wounded Warriors Outdoors. He said the goal was to provide veterans with an opportunity to challenge themselves in unusual situations and environments.

“There is nothing ADA compliant about the outdoors,” Meyer told Jon Bravo for a 2018 film called “A Story From War.”

Chase

Meyer was encountering plenty of hardship on the Montana prairie.

At 11:30 a.m., he laid prone to take aim at a bison atop a flat-topped hill more than 300 yards away. APR allows only 2-year-old bison to be shot by the public. They are identified by their horns, which tend to angle straight out to the sides in a V rather than curve.

With the animal confirmed to be within APR’s guidelines, Meyer pulled the trigger of Long’s 6.5mm rifle. The bison staggered but did not go down. After waiting for a second clear shot, he fired again, but the bullet went high. A third shot seemed to hit the bison, but it still stood.

The roughly 30 other bison milled around the wounded one, which had a noticeable limp.

“When there’s a wounded or dead bison, the others get really worked up,” explained Scott Heidebrink, the APR’s senior bison restoration manager, during the morning’s orientation.

The wounded bison eventually broke into a run away from Meyer before turning around and charging back the other direction. Sage grouse flew through a light snowfall as he watched the bison disappear over the horizon into the gauzy haze of the afternoon.

“I’m sorry guys,” Meyer said.

Repeated attempts to sneak up on the herd for another shot were frustrated as the bison continued to move away. Late in the day rain began to fall and the dry ground turned into clay, clinging to Meyer’s boots and making his trek across the badlands even more tiring. Long and his father, Ken, who was accompanying the group in a support role, would pause every 100 yards or so to cut the clay off Meyer’s boots with a pocket knife.

Despite the physically exhausting day, Meyer’s spirits never foundered. During a moment of rest, he revealed his idea of going into stand-up comedy with an amputee routine. Able-bodied people sitting down were a “waste of legs.” His shortened right leg had left him “half assed.” Children to whom he’d shown his prosthetics had run off with them and he recalled requesting, “Hey kid, bring back my hand!”

Return

After an overnight stay in the nearby community of Malta, Meyer returned to APR with Garrett and Ken Long the next day to search for the wounded bison.

“We were not seeing any bison,” he said, yet he wasn’t worried, trusting in his guides’ ability.

Ken Long finally spotted the bison lying down. After sneaking to within 200 yards Meyer propped the long-range rifle atop the foot of his unattached prosthetic and waited for the bison to stand up. This time one shot proved lethal and the work of butchering the bison and packing the meat back to the truck began.

“Without my team I’d be worthless,” Meyer said, crediting the Longs for all of their help.

After the demanding bison harvest, and the emotional roller coaster of the first day’s events, Meyer remained philosophical.

“That’s kind of the hunting game,” he said. “I enjoy the peaks and valleys.”

After dropping the meat off at a butcher and the hide and skull off for taxidermy, Meyer still had a long drive back to his home in Fallbrook, California, where he works for a mortgage brokerage firm helping veterans.

“I like driving,” he said. “It’s part of the journey for me.

“Have gun will travel.”