Jack McNeel
Bison on the National Bison Range, one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the U.S., whose management could be transferred to the Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

Montana’s National Bison Range May Revert to Confederated Salish/Kootenai Tribes

Jack McNeel

After years of contention over jurisdiction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated its support for legislation that would hand over management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, where the federal refuge lies.

The National Bison Range is a unique jewel in the National Wildlife Refuge System and is located within the borders of the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana. It dates back to 1908, one of the oldest such designations in the wildlife refuge system, and covers nearly 19,000 acres. Created to offer protection to bison when these animals were close to extinction, it also provides a home for many other large animals, including pronghorn antelope, mule and white tailed deer, elk, bighorn sheep, a few mountain goats and black bear. The bison population ranges up to about 500 animals.

The Consolidated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have worked to become more involved with management of the bison range since the 1994 Self Governance Act made that a possibility. The new legislation would transfer the property to the tribes. Since it would require Congressional approval, such a measure could take months.

“This proposal was not sought out by the tribe,” tribal spokesman Rob McDonald said. “We were surprised but happy by the opportunity. We think this proposal makes historical and managerial sense, but there will be no change to access. If somehow this would change public access to bison, I’m sure FWS would not have considered this an option.”

The effort is in its earliest stages, said Anna Munoz, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant regional director for external affairs in Colorado.

“We’re at the very beginning of discussions,” she told The Missoulian. “We believe right now is the right time to begin the transition into a trust for a refuge that long was carved out of the lands of the Flathead Indian Reservation.”

It’s a move to decentralize control of such resources away from Washington D.C., McDonald said.

“This continues federal ownership but is a trend toward increasing local control as opposed to management from Washington, D.C.,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The U.S. government will still hold this land in trust for us, yet the management will be local as done by us. We haven’t pursued ownership. It’s always been about extending self-determination and management. What resonates strongly with us is the exploration of this proposal, which would return and restore these lands.”

McDonald used Mission Valley Power to illustrate the tribes’ managerial qualifications. They have been in control of that company for more than two years and have provided stellar maintenance, as well as conducted environmental cleanup and restoration—all while maintaining the lowest electrical prices in Montana. Nevertheless, there has already been some negative reaction by people thinking this might create some sort of precedent. Naysayers worry that other national wildlife refuges and national parks could be ceded to Indian tribes. But McDonald said that this situation is unique.

“This land, the Bison Range, has a unique historical and cultural connection to us,” McDonald said. “I guess you could say it’s a singular situation that will not set a precedent.”

While the Fish and Wildlife Service met with the tribe about transferring the refuge, officials from the federal agency also spoke to the National Bison Range’s seven employees to assure them that they would keep their jobs and that the transfer, if it happens, would take a while. Noreen Walsh, director of FWS’s Mountain-Prairie Region, spoke about bison populations since the establishment of the range.

“Since then, the Service as well as our federal, state and tribal partners have made great strides in conserving bison and re-establishing herds through their historic range,” Walsh said in a statement quoted by The Missoulian. “We are today in a much better place regarding the future of bison. We want to strengthen our partnership with the CSKT. We believe that now is the right time to investigate the possibility of transferring the refuge into trust for the benefit of the CSKT.”

McDonald noted that the tribes were managing the bison population long before the United States existed and stepped in.

“As the original managers of the bison herd on the Flathead Reservation prior to the establishment of the National Bison Range, we look forward to learning more about the opportunities related to U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s proposal of restoring tribal ownership of the Bison Range,” McDonald said in a written statement. “We are committed to the responsible management of the land in a way that is consistent with tribal values—values we share with all Montanans.”

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