Bison Range Belongs to All Americans

CSKT has no demonstrable historic, cultural or financial right to the purchased NBR land or its improvements

By Philip L. Barney

Recently, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) announced their renewed effort to have ownership of the National Bison Range (NBR), a Federal Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), given to the CSKT.

Some facts about the NBR:

1) It was created in 1908 by the U.S. Congress on recommendation of President Theodore Roosevelt.

2) The site chosen by University of Montana Professor Elrod, although not the historic range of bison, was 18,500 acres of steep Class III Grazing Land, the least desirable and cheapest on the reservation, and had been used in the past by non-tribal native Americans to raise bison (which were sold when the reservation was created).

3) The original herd of 40 bison was purchased from non-tribal individual owners using private funds raised by the American Bison Society.

4) The CSKT was paid the 1908 then going rate of $1.25/ acre for the NBR land, $645,600 in today’s currency. In 1972, the CSKT received an additional $21,000,000 (over $100,000,000 in today’s currency), tax free, as additional compensation for reservation land, including the NBR, taken by the federal, state and local governments for townships, schools, parks and wildlife preserves. Like almost 40 percent of the Flathead Indian Reservation, the NBR is non-tribal deeded land.

5) Millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent for over a century to develop the infrastructure of the NBR with fencing, roads, corrals, housing, game animals and a visitor center. Millions more have been spent to maintain the complex ecosystem utilizing the expertise of the USFWS, transforming the raw grazing land into a world-class game park. No CSKT funds were used.

Based on these facts, “restoration” of the NBR to the CSKT, a term used by the Tribe, the National Wildlife Federation and Sen. Jon Tester, is a misnomer, since CSKT has no demonstrable historic, cultural or financial right to the purchased NBR land or its improvements. Tribal control of the NBR would result in the loss of decades of experience and expertise of the USFWS in managing this complex ecosystem (expertise the CSKT lacks). Also, under CSKT ownership the public would have no input into the management practices, schedule of public access or the fees charged for visitation.   

Like our national parks, national monuments and other federal facilities, the NBR was created with U.S. taxpayer dollars, is owned by all Americans, and should not be given to a Sovereign Nation, as the CSKT claims to be. Our congressional delegation should reject any effort to do so. It is appropriate, as the USFWS has proposed in their draft plan for future NBR management, to employ tribal members in some cooperative management duties of the NBR. However, if the federal government ever decides to divest itself of a valuable resource like the National Bison Range (which would be akin to getting rid of Glacier National Park) it should only be done on an open, competitive bidding basis.

Philip L. Barney of Polson is president of Protect Public Lands, LLC.

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