CSKT Renews Proposal for Ownership of Bison Range

Tribal leaders ask Montana congressional delegation for ‘historically just’ resolution

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

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have renewed a proposal to return management of the 18,800-acre National Bison Range to tribal management under a federal trust ownership agreement, an historic change of course that tribal leaders believe is in the best interest of the bison, the tribes and the state of Montana.

Tribal leaders announced March 20 they had notified Montana’s congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of the Interior that they wished to revisit a proposal to restore federal trust ownership to the tribes.

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

In 2016, talks about a transfer plan began in earnest between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) 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 USFWS management of the Bison Range, removing it from the National Wildlife Refuge System.

The CSKT have released a draft proposal that would place the range back into federal trust ownership for the tribes, which tribal leaders said includes management for bison conservation purposes as well as continued public access.

Those discussions were derailed in 2016 when the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which has adamantly opposed tribal involvement at the Bison Range, filed a lawsuit against USFWS, arguing that the federal agency failed to conduct the necessary environmental review before telling CSKT that it would support legislation to transfer the wildlife refuge to the tribes.

The group said the agency’s proposed partnership with CSKT would set a dangerous precedent, and could spark demands by other tribes for similar handovers at 18 other U.S. national wildlife refuges and 57 national parks.

Last year, PEER settled its lawsuit against USFWS under the agreement that the agency would prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge, a process that an agency spokesperson said is still underway.

On March 20, however, CSKT leaders announced they “would like to revisit the proposal to restore the National Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the benefit of the Tribes. This was the status of the Bison Range lands under the Hellgate Treaty, prior to the creation of the Range.”

“We continue to believe that restoration of the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the Tribes is the best solution,” Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan stated in a news release. “It is also historically just. The Tribes work hard as natural resource and wildlife managers and we look forward to extending our work at the Bison Range.”

Under the draft legislation CSKT released for public comment in the summer of 2016, public access would be statutorily required, as would the continued management for bison conservation.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, said he received the letter from CSKT leadership and is in the process of reviewing it in more detail.

“I strongly believe in tribal sovereignty and look forward to reviewing the details of this proposal. I appreciate the tribe’s outreach and work on this matter,” according to a statement released by Tester’s office. “Any successful effort to restore the bison range to the tribe must guarantee public access, include local input, and be backed by Montana’s entire Congressional delegation — otherwise it won’t go anywhere in Congress.”

Rich Janssen, head of CSKT’s Natural Resources Department, said the tribes have a strong record of conservation and natural resource management.

“When the tribes have taken on big projects, whether it was assuming operation of the electric utility that serves the entire reservation, or helping to design a wildlife-friendly highway renovation unlike any other in the country, we take them seriously,” Janssen said. “We work to get the job done, and get it done well. The Bison Range would be no different. We already have an extensive network of tribally designated conservation areas that surround the Bison Range; its central location would be a logical addition to Tribal lands and would promote more holistic management.”

In a recent documentary film that CSKT commissioned and helped to produce, tribal members explain how they were responsible for bringing the first buffalo herd to the Flathead Indian Reservation at a time when the animals were at risk of extinction. Descendants of those buffalo formed the vast majority of the National Bison Range’s original herd.

That history, in combination with the range’s location in the center of the Flathead Indian Reservation, creates added resonance to the idea of restoring the range to federal trust ownership for the tribes, Janssen said.