What is the history of the Tribes’ relationship to the buffalo at the Bison Range?
In the 1870’s, when mass slaughter put the plains bison on the brink of extinction, a Ql̓ispé (also known as Kalispel or Pend d’Oreille) man named Little Falcon Robe received approval from leaders of the Tribes to bring orphaned bison calves across the Continental Divide to the Flathead Indian Reservation for purposes of starting a herd for subsistence and conservation purposes. Those few bison calves grew into a large free-ranging herd under the stewardship of Tribal members, who later included Michel Pablo and Charles Allard. This herd became the largest herd of plains bison in the world by the end of the 1800’s. When the federal government opened the Reservation to non-Indian homesteading in the early 1900’s, a free-ranging bison herd was no longer possible, resulting in Michel Pablo having to sell the herd to off-Reservation interests. Once the National Bison Range was established in 1908 and the federal government needed to populate it with bison, the American Bison Society purchased many of the same bison, or their descendants, that had just been evicted from the Reservation and brought them back to the Reservation to form the original herd for the National Bison Range. Of the forty bison that formed the original herd at the National Bison Range, thirty-six were from, or descended from, the Pablo-Allard herd.
This history is recounted in a short documentary film called “In the Spirit of ʔAtatíc̓eʔ: The Untold Story of the National Bison Range”, available for viewing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1WvkSN8zDQ
What will happen to the bison at the National Bison Range?
The legislation would require that the land and bison herd be managed for bison conservation purposes, as well as other wildlife and natural resource conservation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (Tribes) would be the steward of the bison herd, which descends from animals that Tribal members had brought back to the Flathead Indian Reservation from east of the Continental Divide at a time when plains bison were on the verge of extinction. See Sections 13(c)(2)(C) and 13(c)(3) of S. 3019.
Will I still be able to visit the Bison Range?
Yes. The legislation would require the Tribes to continue public access and visitation at the Bison Range. See Sections 13(a)(2)(C) and 13(c)(3)(A) of S. 3019.
Will the land remain in federal ownership?
Yes. The land would continue to be owned by the federal government but in trust for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes . The only difference would be that, instead of being owned by the United States as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, it would now be owned by the U.S. in trust for the Tribes – just as it had been from the date of the 1855 Hellgate Treaty until 1908 when it was acquired by the federal government for the Bison Range. The land would not be removed from federal ownership but, under trust principles, the Tribes would be the beneficial owners. See Sections 13(a)(2)(D) and 13(c)(1) of S. 3019.
What is federal trust ownership of Indian land?
The federal government acts as a trustee for Indian tribes, including with respect to ownership of tribal lands. The title to most property on Indian reservations that is referred to as Indian-owned or tribally-owned is actually owned by the United States in trust for such tribe or individual Indian. The tribe, as the beneficial owner, enjoys the rights and privileges of ownership, but the tribe cannot dispose of, or otherwise convey, the land without approval by the United States.
Would this be a precedent for other land transfers?
No. The revised draft legislation contains language explicitly barring its interpretation as a precedent for any other situation regarding federal lands, property or facilities. The language specifically recognizes the distinct facts, history and circumstances involved with the Bison Range land, bison herd, and the Tribes. See Section 13(k) of S. 3019. See also the January 15, 2020 guest editorial by Robin Saha of Montana Conservation Voters Education Fund
How will the Tribes pay for management of the Bison Range?
The Tribal Council is committed to funding the Bison Range at a degree that will maintain or exceed its current level of operation. The Tribes would likely assess the concession arrangement at the Bison Range visitor center to evaluate for expanded opportunities related to visitor needs and expectations, which could also assist with meeting annual funding needs. Maintaining or increasing the current level of visitation would be one part of the budget planning process, and would dovetail with planning for public education opportunities, which are a priority for the Tribes. Maintaining reasonably-priced entry fees would be essential to supporting the Tribes’ interests in public education and visitor experiences at the Bison Range, whereas exorbitant fees would undermine those priorities.
The legislation would provide a two-year transition period during which the Interior Secretary could assist with resources, after which time the Tribes would be responsible for funding annual operations of the Bison Range – the federal government would no longer fund them.
Will the Tribes allow hunting on the Bison Range?
Although hunting is allowed on some National Wildlife Refuges, public hunting is not currently allowed on the National Bison Range, although there are periodic “management hunts” used for population control of certain animals. The Tribes do not envision changes to this.
Would this be privatization of public lands?
No, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are a federally-recognized tribal government. The Tribal Council consists of ten Council Members who are elected by the Tribal membership in accordance with the Tribes’ Constitution. The United States, as well as the State of Montana, deals with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on a government-to-government basis. The Tribal government provides many of the same types of services to its citizenry and, in many cases, to the larger Reservation community, that other governments provide, including: law enforcement; health; education; and natural resources management.
The land would continue to be owned by the federal government, but would now be held in trust for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The Tribes already allow public access to almost all Tribally-owned land, including the Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness and other Tribally-designated conservation areas on the Reservation.
Have other Refuges ever been removed from the National Wildlife Refuge System?
Yes – numerous times. Montana alone has had three other Refuges removed from the National Wildlife Refuge System in past decades, including the Fort Keogh National Wildlife Refuge which, at 56,954 acres, was almost triple the size of the National Bison Range. These removals are documented in a December 1975 report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. See Report Here.