Feds Ready to Hand Bison Range to Tribes

A bison stands on the National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana. A federal proposal would transfer management of the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (David Reese photo)

(CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week took a step to transferring the National Bison Range to the Native American tribes that once settled in the area of the 18,000-acre range in northwest Montana.

The service on Wednesday announced a preferred management plan that would transfer the National Bison Range on Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

In 1855, the United States entered into the Hellgate Treaty with the Salish and Kootenai tribes of western Montana to establish the Flathead Indian Reservation. On May 23, 1908, after white settlement was allowed on the reservation, Congress used its power of eminent domain to establish the National Bison Range, which maintains a herd of bison to ensure the preservation of the species. The National Bison Range lies entirely within the boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Members of the tribes have a cultural and historical connection to the land and resources of the range, and the herd of about 400 bison at the range are descendants of bison owned and preserved by the tribes over a century ago.

For about the last 20 years the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have pushed to gain management and control of the bison range.

“We look forward to cooperating with the service in its preparation of a comprehensive conservation plan, including evaluation of bison range restoration,” Vernon S. Finley, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said in a statement. “The tribes look forward to the day when we can extend our record of natural resources management to the bison range, including its bison that descend from the herd managed by tribal members a century ago.”

Under the plan to transfer the range to the tribes, the federal government would continue to own the National Bison Range land, but the land would be held in trust for the tribes – just as it had when the 1855 Hellgate Treaty was signed. The bison range would continue to be open to the public. The range features many other wildlife species such as elk, eagles, bear, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, coyotes and wolves.

From 1994 to 2016, the tribes have engaged in extensive efforts to partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the National Bison Range. The tribes were able to enter into management agreements with the federal government from 2005 to 2006, and from 2008 to 2010.

While the tribes support management of the bison range, local opposition helped lead to the government not renewing the management agreement in 2010, when it said it needed an environmental review to continue tribal management of the bison range. Since that time, no tribal members work at the bison range, but tribal spokesman Robert McDonald said if tribal management were restored “employment there would go up greatly.”

Fish and Wildlife released three alternatives in preparing the environmental impact statement, from maintaining current management, to the preferred alternative of transferring complete management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The current alternative has the service continue its current management of habitat and visitor services on existing refuge lands.

Under the service’s preferred management option, the service intends to evaluate a congressional transfer of lands of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation.

A third alternative would have Fish and Wildlife complete an annual funding agreement with the tribes under the Tribal Self Governance Act. Under this option the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes would be responsible for implementing the provisions of the funding agreement.

The draft legislation proposed for the National Bison Range would not set precedent for other transfers of land or facilities management to other Native American tribes. Language in the legislation recognizes that this transfer is a unique situation regarding the Montana bison range and the tribes who live there.