Montana Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester are co-sponsoring draft legislation in the U.S. Senate entitled the “ Montana Water Rights Protection Act” ostensibly to approve the Flathead Irrigation Water Compact Agreement approved by the Montana Legislature. However, the bill goes far beyond this agreement. As “concessions” to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe (CKST), they receive $ 1.9 billion (that’s $425,000 per tribal member), 36,000 acres of public land and the National Bison Range (NBR).
The NBR was established by Congress at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to preserve bison from extinction, and was purchased from CSKT as grazing land at the going rate of $1.56/acre ($807,000 in today’s currency). The original bison herd of 40 animals was purchased with private funds by the American Bison Society.
Since then, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on infrastructure and other big game animals, transforming the NBR into a world-class game park, often called the “Crown Jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge system. Its current assets are valued at $25 million, its commercial value is far higher, and like our National Parks, the value to future generations cannot be expressed in monetary terms.
In 1972, the CSKT received the current equivalent of $129 million as compensation for reservation land taken for governmental purposes, including townships, schools and the NBR. Like 40% of land on the Flathead Reservation that is non-tribal owned, the NBR is owned by the federal government for all Americans. Giving a National Wildlife Refuge to a sovereign nation would set a terrible and inappropriate precedent, and would not be ignored by other Indian tribes in the country. It should not be done without the public’s permission. The NBR has absolutely nothing to do with water rights, and should not be used as a “bargaining chip” with the CSKT. Control of the NBR by the CSKT would also mean the loss of decades of management expertise by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a very complex ecosystem.
It is doubtful that the senators have either the right or authority to give away federal lands. Anyone who is opposed to federal land giveaways should be opposed to this bill. Simply said, it is a bad bill from several perspectives and should be withdrawn, renegotiated and re-written. Save the National Bison Range! Call or write to Daines and Tester to express your opposition to this federal land giveaway.
Philip L. Barney is the president and Wayne Schile is the vice president of Protect Public Lands, LLC, in Polson.