Interior Halts Transfer of Bison Range to Tribes

The National Bison Range lies within the Flathead Indian Reservation of northwest Montana. The Mission Mountains are in the background. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

(CN) – The plan to transfer management of the National Bison Range to a Native American tribe came to an abrupt halt Wednesday, after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he won’t pursue that course of action.

The National Bison Range is an 18,000-acre preserve in northwest Montana that holds some of the nation’s most genetically pure American bison. The range, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have pushed for decades to gain management and control of the range.

In January, Fish and Wildlife said it would endorse federal legislation to transfer management of the range to the tribes.

That’s not happening now, according to Zinke, a Montana native and former congressman who was sworn in as President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary in March.

“I took a hard look at the current proposal suggesting a new direction for the National Bison Range and assessed what this would mean for Montana and the nation,” Zinke said in a statement Thursday. “As secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior’s resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present and future, which is why I have changed course.

“I have said I will not sell or transfer public land. I remain steadfast in that commitment, which reflects my decision today. That said, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward. We can do a far better job expanding access and informing the public about the National Bison Range. [The tribes] will be instrumental in helping make this significant place a true reflection of our cultural heritage.”

The National Bison Range was established in Moiese, Montana, on May 23, 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation authorizing funds to purchase suitable land for the conservation of bison. The overall mission of the range is to maintain a representative herd of bison to ensure the preservation of the species for continued public enjoyment.

The range is also one of the last intact publicly owned intermountain native grasslands in the United States and it holds a variety of big game and bird species.

Fish and Wildlife’s management plan would have, with congressional approval, transferred the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The federal government would have continued to own the land, which would have been held in trust for the tribes.

From 1994 to 2016, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have engaged in extensive efforts to partner with Fish and Wildlife to manage the range. The tribes were able to enter into management agreements with the federal government from 2005 to 2006, and from 2008 to 2010.

In 2010, the federal government did not renew the management agreement and 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.

Twenty years of negotiation over an annual funding agreement with the tribes had mixed success due to litigation, personnel management issues and differences in expectations over the management plan.

In January 2016, Fish and Wildlife informed the tribes that it would support a legislative transfer of the bison range, and in January 2017 a notice of intent was published in the Federal Register, announcing the service’s development of a comprehensive conservation plan for the management of the bison range.

Public comment on that plan was taken through February. According to the Interior Department, most of the comments were from Montanans, a majority of whom were against the bison range transfer.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a lawsuit last year over the transfer of the bison range. The lawsuit claims Fish and Wildlife failed to complete statutorily mandated environmental review prior to proposing transfer legislation and failed to complete a comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge due in 2012, as has been required by law since 1997.

“Called the crown jewel of our wildlife refuge system, Montana’s National Bison Range has languished as Obama officials attempted to hand over its management and, in the past year, give the refuge away in its entirety to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” the group said in a statement.

“The service’s maneuvering in the final days of the Obama administration is tantamount to an admission of guilt and so we very much expect to resolve this lawsuit in the coming weeks,” the group’s senior counsel Paula Dinerstein said.

According to the group, the bison range’s staffing and funding have been drastically reduced as negotiations and legislation over the bison range have stalled.

“It is high time the National Bison Range is restored as a fully functioning unit of our wildlife refuge system,” Dinerstein said.


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