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. After Charles Allard died in 1896, his estate sold his share of the Pablo-Allard herd, some of which went to the Conrad Ranch in Kalispell, Montana in the early 1900’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 Bison Range, formerly known as the National Bison Range, was established in 1908, the federal government needed to populate it with bison. The American Bison Society purchased many of the same bison, or their descendants, that Allard’s estate had sold to the Conrad Ranch and brought them back to the 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:
What will happen to the bison at the National Bison Range?
The public law requires 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) are now 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 12(c)(1) and 12(c)(2)(C) of Division “DD” of Public Law 116-260.
Will I still be able to visit the Bison Range?
Yes. The public law requires the Tribes to continue public access and visitation at the Bison Range. See Sections 12(a)(2)(C) and 12(c)(3)(A) of Division “DD” of Public Law 116-260.
Will the land remain in federal ownership?
Yes. The land will continue to be owned by the federal government but in trust for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The only difference will be that, instead of being owned by the United States as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, it will 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 12(a)(2)(D) and 12(c)(1) of Division “DD” of Public Law 116-260.
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 public law 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 12(k) of Division “DD” of Public Law 116-260. 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 will 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 will be one part of the budget planning process, and will dovetail with planning for public education opportunities, which are a priority for the Tribes. Maintaining reasonably-priced entry fees will be essential to supporting the Tribes’ interests in public education and visitor experiences at the Bison Range, whereas exorbitant fees will undermine those priorities.
The public law provides a two-year transition period during which the Interior Secretary is authorized to assist with resources, after which the Tribes will be responsible for funding annual operations of the Bison Range – the federal government will no longer fund them. See Section 12(f) of Division “DD” of Public Law 116-260
Will the Tribes allow hunting on the Bison Range?
Although hunting is allowed on some National Wildlife Refuges, public hunting was not allowed on the Bison Range during FWS management and is not allowed now. However, there have always been 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 will continue to be owned by the federal government, but will 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 Bison Range. These removals are documented in a December 1975 report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). See Report Here.