The Blackfeet Tribe has been getting mixed signals from federal officials in Washington D.C. about the future of a conservation program on the reservation east of the mountains.
In early October, the Bureau of Indian Affairs informed the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council that the range rider program would be terminated. The program employs five people to enforce grazing and range rules on tribal-owned land that is leased to ranchers. The range rider employees work to ensure that the land is not overgrazed.
The program is managed by the BIA and funded by a fee paid by local cattle producers. The program costs about $140,000 annually, according to documents sent from the BIA to the tribe that were published and reported by Yellowstone Public Radio.
In the letter from the BIA to the tribe, sent on Oct. 5, the federal agency stated that all fees paid by cattle producers would be sent to the Treasury Department.
“It came as a shock,” said Blackfeet Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes, who quickly sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke asking that he resolve the issue. The BIA is under the umbrella of Zinke’s Department of the Interior.
Barnes noted that under federal law, the BIA has to consult with the tribe before making any decision that directly impacts jobs on the reservation.
But since the letter was sent to the tribe, the BIA has apparently changed course and decided to make “tweaks” to the program instead of terminating it. Department of the Interior spokesperson Heather Swift blamed the mix-up on “poor” communication between the federal agency and the tribe.
“The Blackfeet Ranger Rider program is not ending,” Swift wrote in a statement to the Beacon. “Unfortunately the Bureau of Indian Affairs was very poor at explaining minor tweaks that we are making to the program. Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs John Tahsuda is working with both the BIA and the Blackfeet tribe to continue the momentum of the program’s positive direction.”
Barnes said he was happy to learn that the program was not ending, although he added that the BIA has given the tribe few details on what the “tweaks” will be.
“If the ‘tweaks’ make the program better, then I’m all for it,” he said. “If they make it worse, then we’re going to have to talk.”