Updated: April 12, 5 p.m.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has shot down a plan to transfer management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
On Wednesday, Zinke said the decision to keep the 18,800-acre preserve under federal control as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System was rooted in his “steadfast commitment” to not transfer or sell public lands.
“I took a hard look at the current proposal suggesting a new direction for the National Bison Range and assessed what this would mean for Montana and the nation,” Zinke said. “As Secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of the Interior’s resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present, and future, which is why I have changed course.”
In 2016, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials informed the CSKT that they would support a legislative transfer of the bison range to the tribe. The talks between FWS and the CSKT marked a major policy change for the agency, which had long advocated for the federal government to maintain a measure of control at the bison range. The range, which was established in 1908, is located entirely within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
In January, FWS began drafting a comprehensive conservation plan for the bison range and at the time it identified handing management control over to the tribe as the preferred alternative.
The CSKT has long advocated for having more control over the bison range and even put forth draft legislation in 2016 for the transfer from federal to local control. CSKT Tribal Chairman Vernon S. Finley said Wednesday he was disappointed with Zinke’s decision but added he looked forward to being involved in the bison range’s management in the future. Finley said Zinke had informed tribal officials of his decision prior to Wednesday’s announcement.
“The National Bison Range is located in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation and will always be a central part of the conservation areas managed by the Tribes’ nationally-recognized Natural Resources Department,” Finley said. “Our stewardship interests there remain, and I look forward to continued discussions with Secretary Zinke and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding Tribal management.”
CSKT officials said they still believe that tribal control is the most logical management solution for the bison range.
Zinke said he hopes to involve the tribe in the bison range’s future management but in the end he believes the federal government can do a better job expanding access and promoting it to the public.
“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward,” Zinke said. “(The tribes) will be instrumental in helping make this significant place a true reflection of our cultural heritage.”