CSKT Bison Range Transfer Receives Strong Reception

Tribes lay out plan for FWS to cede management to Flathead Indian Reservation

By Tristan Scott
Bison roam the National Bison Range near Moiese. Beacon File Photo

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are laying plans to return management of the 18,800-acre National Bison Range to tribal management, an historic change of course that tribal leaders believe is in the best interest of the bison, the tribes and the state of Montana.

In 1908, the Flathead Indian Reservation ceded control of the land when the federal government established the National Bison Range, and returning management authority to the tribes — which would require legislative action — has long been a goal of the CSKT.

Earlier this year, talks about a transfer plan began in earnest between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tribal leaders when federal officials broached the topic.

The talks marked a departure from the federal agency’s past commitment to maintaining a measure of control of the refuge. If a transfer is finalized, it will effectively end more than a century of FWS management of the Bison Range, removing it from the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Last month, the CSKT released a proposal that would remove the range from the National Wildlife Refuge System and place it back into federal trust ownership for the tribes.

The CSKT held a public meeting July 12 to discuss the proposed legislation to restore the National Bison Range to federal trust ownership, which tribal leaders said includes management for bison conservation purposes as well as continued public access.

Representatives of local conservation groups and the offices of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke attended the meeting. While the delegation is involved in ongoing dialogue with the tribes in developing draft legislative language, they have neither supported nor opposed the transfer.

Denise Juneau, Montana’s superintendent for public instruction and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, expressed strong support for the transfer plan.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has called the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ wildlife management program one of the best in the country,” Juneau said. “I’m pleased the federal government and the tribes have entered into meaningful discussions about the possibility of restoring the National Bison Range back to CSKT.”

Tribal attorneys presented and explained the draft legislation to attendees, who then broke into smaller groups where they had the opportunity to ask questions with staff from the tribal natural resources and legal departments.

Tribal leaders hailed the meeting as a strong barometer of support, particularly as it drew approximately 150 members of the public.

“We were very pleased with the public participation,” said Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley. “We want to create an open and transparent forum for our fellow Montanans to have a say in this process.”

“I was impressed with the informative feedback tonight regarding the proposed Bison Range restoration,” said CSKT Natural Resources Director Rich Janssen. “We heard a lot of appreciation for our willingness to hear public comments as well as some legitimate concerns that will help us improve our draft legislation.”

Last month, the tribes established the Bison Range Working Group as a forum for conservation groups, non-governmental organizations, governmental officials and entities, and citizens to provide comment on the tribes’ draft legislative proposal.

An online forum is available for the public to submit comments on the draft legislative language at http://www.BisonRangeWorkingGroup.org.

A report summarizing all of the public comments will be released, along with answers to questions, and will be posted to the working group website.