"We've always managed - we just didn't call it that," says Buzz Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and a Native American Liaison for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "The only difference is, now we've been acculturated to the point where we approach wildlife management like the federal and state governments do."
Before the U.S. government confined tribes to reservations, some made a living by hunting and fishing selectively, and tribes all over North America used large-scale prescribed burns to improve their hunting grounds. When Western expansion all but destroyed these subsistence livelihoods, most tribes were left with few opportunities for development.
Those dark times were a painful preservative for the 100 million acres of reservation land. "Tribal lands are some of the last undeveloped areas in North America," says Cobell. "The animals are there, and the habitat is in good shape."
For years, it was close to impossible for tribes to get federal money for wildlife management. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which gave tribes more power to choose how they spent federal funds. Later court decisions bolstered tribal control of wildlife on reservation lands, opening the modern era of tribal wildlife management.
Since then, about 70 of the 560 federally recognized tribes have established natural resource programs, ranging from bare-bones inventory and monitoring projects to elaborate fish and wildlife recovery efforts.
Some of these projects have allowed tribes to make money off hunting or fishing licenses. Many more have brought back part of traditional tribal livelihoods, and all have restored important pieces of tribal culture.
"You go to the Pine Ridge Reservation and ask who manages wildlife or water quality, and everybody knows," says Pat Durham, the national Native American Liaison for the Fish and Wildlife Service. "That's an important person, someone who affects something that's very important to the tribe."
Funding remains a major roadblock for tribal wildlife projects. Under the Pittman-Robertson Act, taxes on firearms generate millions of dollars for state wildlife departments - but leave tribes out in the cold. Tribes also miss out on federal funds for endangered species management, even though tribal lands are valuable habitat for species in trouble.
"The recovery and protection of dwindling species often ends up in our laps," says Cobell. "The federal and state governments need to reward tribes for the way they've managed the land, not penalize them."
To fill in the funding gaps, some tribes have begun to reach out to nonprofit environmental groups. "We've grown to understand that we must network, we must drop our guards as native peoples," says Levi Holt of the Nez Perce tribe.
Both Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation have been especially active on tribal wildlife projects, and Minette Johnson of Defenders of Wildlife says the cooperative efforts have been a good deal for both sides. "We didn't have to deal with an endless bureaucracy," she says of the swift fox restoration project. "We just did it."
Reservations aren't wildlife preserves, though. As tribes gain economic leverage and political clout, they're unlikely to turn down a chance to build a shopping mall or a new factory on reservation land. "This land was set aside for tribes to manage - and for us to use to care for our people," Cobell points out. "Tribes are carrying the burden of habitat protection that private landowners are reluctant to take on."