Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Receive Top Conservation Award

Jack McNeel
6/13/12

A tradition of environmental stewardship seems to have paid off: The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of Montana have taken home the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) National Conservation Achievement Award in the Government category, a first for a tribe.

The award recognized CSKT for being “one of the great leaders in fish and wildlife conservation in the West,” with 50 years of conservation work, the NWF wrote on its website detailing the tribes’ accomplishment. “They go above and beyond what would be considered sufficient and never take the approach that a conservation challenge is unachievable.”

CSKT chairman Joe Durglo expressed gratitude while noting that environmental stewardship comes naturally.

“As a tribal government, this has always been our mission to protect our resources,” Durglo told Indian Country Today Media Network. “We feel privileged to be recognized and honored this way for what we’ve always done in the history of our people.”

These cultural and spiritual convictions are what brought the tribes to the attention of the NWF over the years, the environmental group said in its write-up. Choosing the tribes as a group represented a departure. Although the NWF has given awards to tribal members, it’s the first time that a tribe in entirety has received the award, said Alexis Bonogofsky, tribal lands manager for the NWF out of Billings, Montana.

“In terms of recognizing tribal sovereignty and showcasing their amazing innovative conservation work happening on tribal lands, it’s important,” she told ICTMN. “This award is extremely significant from both the conservation community standpoint and tribal standpoint. Some of the most important work is happening on tribal land.”

Dale Becker, CSKT’s wildlife program manager, said he’d been reading of these awards over the years but never dreamed it would land on his doorstep.

“I’d think, ‘Wow, that’s really something!’ ” he said. “I never figured I’d be working someplace that had a piece of the action.”

Dale and tribal council member Rueben Mathias traveled to Washington, D.C., to accept the honor.

The nomination states that the tribes’ projects are notable for being the first of their kind and the “most unique and progressive in the nation.” Generally, Becker said, the awards are given for work in wildlife or habitat. Forestry and other environmental projects are also considered.

In this vein, some achievements stand out. As far back as the 1930s, the CSKT tried to establish a tribal national park, though the effort died in Washington, D.C. However in 1982 the tribes became the first to establish a wilderness, the 92,000-acre Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness.

“I think probably one of the earliest [projects considered] was the tribes’ actions to ensure in-stream flows in the Flathead River given all the draw-outs for irrigation,” said Becker. “It covered the tribes’ efforts trying to fight off a re-regulating dam on top of Kootenai Falls. It was a very significant place for the Kootenai people, and still is.”

In addition to the wilderness area, a buffer zone was created along the west side where various communities are located. About the same time, tribal efforts came into play to manage grizzly bears. A grizzly bear management area of 10,000 acres was established, with access prohibited during the summer months, when grizzlies converge to feed on cutworm moths. The tribes also prohibited hunting grizzlies even before the State of Montana established such regulations.

“For all three tribes [Salish, Kootenai, and also Pend Oreille], in a whole stack of species with cultural and historical significance, grizzly bears are on the top shelf,” Becker said. “There’s always been a real reverence, and that has been followed up by management action.”

About 15 percent to 20 percent of the funding comes from the tribes, Becker said, but most of the work is funded through a mitigation plan for impacts from Kerr Dam, a power facility now operated by PPL Montana. Negotiated between various federal agencies, the settlement was finalized in 1999.

“That set the stage for us to do a lot of wildlife stuff,” said Becker. “A lot of it is game work enhancing wildlife populations that are here. We try to stay pretty close to those species that were impacted by the dam.”

Such efforts include buying riparian habitat and wetland areas that bears use. A trumpeter swan project has re-introduced trumpeters to the reservation. In addition, 8,000 acres of wildlife production areas have been purchased, and that has allowed work on enhancement programs for some of those areas.

“We’ve done the dirt work to create wetlands, and a lot of what we’re doing right now is vegetation,” Becker said, adding that most of it is for waterfowl management.

A fisheries project is designed to restore bull trout, a nationally threatened species. Underpasses beneath Highway 93 allow wildlife to pass through, reducing highway losses caused by collisions. An 8,000-acre ranch was purchased with mitigation money. Working with tribal lands people, cattle were moved to that site, allowing their former range to be returned to wetlands for waterfowl management.

“They are visionary conservation leaders that have few equals among other local, state or tribal governments and deserve NWF’s recognition for their long-term, persistent and visionary work to protect wildlife for our children’s future,” the NWF said. “The CSKT leadership role in wildlife and natural resource conservation and environmental protection are unparalleled.”

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