Tribes Assume Full Management of Bison Range

In December 2020, Congress passed the Bison Range Restoration legislation as part of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act

By Micah Drew
Bison graze on a hillside at the National Bison Range in Moiese. File photo

Following decades of stalled efforts to reassert management authority over the nearly 19,000-acre swath of Flathead Indian Reservation land where an iconic herd of bison roams, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) has assumed full management control over what was formerly known as the National Bison Range, which has been under jurisdiction of the federal government for more than a century.

The push for reunification of the land and tribal control has been ongoing for more than two decades, but was officially restored to the CSKT on Jan. 2, 2022. In December 2020, Congress passed the Bison Range Restoration legislation as part of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. The legislation was co-sponsored by all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and its passage began the two-year transition period to move control from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to the tribes. In addition to transferring the bison range, the act also settled a long-standing treaty negotiation that gave CSKT rights to major water resources inside the Flathead Indian Reservation in return for releasing claims on more than 10,000 water rights outside its boundaries.

Resolving the age-old conflict over water rights on the reservation signals a monumental accord, but the shift of the Bison Range’s management responsibilities from the oversight of the federal government’s purview to the tribes’ marks a historic occasion. For the previous 25 years, the tribes had been actively seeking to restore ownership of the 18,766 acres to a federal trust, which would allow the Salish and Kootenai to assume — or resume — full management responsibilities of the range.

“Returning the Bison Range to its people is a momentous occasion, honoring lands, relationships, and conservation successes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” FWS Director Martha Williams said in a press release. “We’ve worked collaboratively with CSKT for many years and look forward to continuing to work together to conserve wildlife. I can’t wait to visit the CSKT’s Bison Range in the future.”  

In 1908, the tribes ceded control of the land against their will when the government established the National Bison Range in the Mission Valley, on a postage stamp of federal land right in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was the first time Congress had appropriated tax dollars specifically for the conservation of wildlife, making it one of the first established wildlife refuges in America. The American Bison Society purchased 40 bison and released them into the refuge in 1909 where they mingled with a free-ranging reservation herd. Today the bison population is between 300 and 500 animals, roaming the range next to elk, whitetail and mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and black bears.

Still, returning management authority to the tribes — which required legislative action — has long been a primary objective for the CSKT.

“Our reunification with this specific buffalo herd means more to us than we can express,” CSKT Chairman Tom McDonald said. “In addition to our wildlife management, the CSKT wants to ensure the story of our people is told at the Bison Range, which we believe will enhance the public experience and foster a better understanding of Indigenous people.”

The entrance to the Bison Range is at Moiese, just off U.S. Highway 93. From May through October, visitors can drive the 20-mile one-way Red Sleep Mountain Drive through the heart of the range and to the top of Red Sleep Mountain, now officially reunited with the Flathead Reservation. There is also a visitor center and museum which is currently undergoing a remodel to better reflect the connection between the wildlife, natural resources, and the Tribes. The museum is expected to be completed by the spring tourist season.

The CSKT are currently planning for a celebration later this year to commemorate the Tribal restoration of the Bison Range to the CSKT.

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