Back on the range?

  • National Bison Range in Montana


A century ago, the federal government took the Salish and Kootenai tribes’ land and bison for a wildlife refuge. Now, the tribes want to take back control.

MOIESE, montana — Here on the National Bison Range, 350 to 500 bison roam a lush, mountain-hemmed prairie, part of a rich community of wildlife that includes bighorn sheep, antelope and migrating birds. The 18,541-acre preserve, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, appears to be an unqualified conservation success.


But the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes see the bison range differently. The federal government created it by more or less taking the tribes’ bison herd, and some of the land the bison grazed. Though it happened nearly a century ago, the wounds still sting.


The government “cut 18,000 acres out of the heart of the reservation,” and tried to sever the tribes’ relationship with bison, says Fred Matt, the tribes’ chairman.


Now, with support from a key federal law, and the backing of the Bush administration, the tribes are negotiating to take over many management duties at the bison range, and at several other national wildlife refuges and federal wetlands within the boundaries of their 1.2 million-acre reservation.


Some observers believe the Salish and Kootenai are about to notch up another victory in the struggle for Indian sovereignty. But others fear that if the tribes prevail here, the national wildlife refuge system could begin to unravel.


“If this refuge goes to the tribes,” says Marvin Kaschke, who managed the bison range in the 1970s, “it will open the door to 40 to 50 different tribes (to claim rights) at other refuges, and we will not have a consistent Fish and Wildlife Service policy.”


In fact, a wave of tribal take-backs is already under way — and it extends even further into the federal estate.


Self-determination overdue

Congressional amendments in 1994 to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act allow tribes to petition federal agencies for permission to manage non-Indian properties where tribes have historical, cultural and geographic ties.


In the last decade, federal agencies have identified dozens of areas where tribes might take over some degree of management. The Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 19 eligible wildlife refuges, and the Bureau of Reclamation has already made deals with four tribes to manage water projects. The Bureau of Land Management says tribes might manage forestry, range, minerals, and wild horses on some BLM land. The National Park Service says at least 34 pieces of its property are eligible, including Glacier National Park in Montana and every national park in Alaska except Denali.


The law doesn’t actually return land to the tribes, only the power to manage it. And the process is difficult: The Salish and Kootenai have been negotiating since 1994. They’re close now, partly because Paul Hoffman, a Bush appointee high in the Department of Interior, backs the idea. “This is an example of this administration’s respect for Native Americans,” Hoffman says. “This is a government-to-government relationship. We take that seriously.”


Even if the tribes begin managing the wildlife refuges in the Flathead Valley, the Fish and Wildlife Service will remain in charge, holding on to oversight of “all inherently governmental duties.” The details — and an annual funding agreement — have to be thrashed out by June 30; after that, the deal goes to Congress and the public for review.


Arguments for and against

Some opponents of tribal management of the bison range are local white citizens, who see it as a tribal land-grab, and occasionally talk in racist terms that don’t bear repeating.


Other critics are current and former wildlife agency employees and their allies. Their concerns range from job layoffs, loss of expertise and reduced access for research, to fears that the tribes will focus too much on tourism and revenue production. They see the proposal as part of the Bush administration’s move to privatize public-land agencies.


“This proposal has created a spirited debate within conservation circles,” says Steve Thompson, the regional representative of the National Parks Conservation Association. He supports the proposal, as long as it doesn’t encourage such deals elsewhere. “There are very few other circumstances in the nation where this kind of claim can be made with equal legitimacy.”


Hoffman of the Interior Department says the tribes will have to keep the emphasis on “the conservation of wildlife.”


And most agree, the Salish and Kootenai manage resources wisely on their reservation, which the federal government named the Flathead, from the name early settlers gave the Salish.


The Salish and Kootenai were the first tribes to set aside a reservation wilderness area. They reintroduced peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and leopard frogs. They held up reconstruction of U.S. Highway 93, Montana’s busiest road, until the state agreed to construct wildlife passages (HCN, 8/13/01: Montana tribes drive the road to sovereignty). They have taken over forestry from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and reduced the timber harvest by more than half. They enforce water and air quality standards that are tougher than state standards.


The tribes also treasure their heritage. Bison aren’t native to this valley; the tribes once crossed the Continental Divide on seasonal hunting trips. Then, in the 1870s, a Pend d’Oreille man, Samuel Walking Coyote, brought a few calves over the mountains from the Great Plains. Even as bison were extirpated elsewhere, the tribes’ free-roaming herd grew to about 1,000 head by 1900. But the federal government forced them to sell the bison in 1906, part of an attempt to turn Indians into farmers. Two years later, the government allocated the reservation land in 160-acre parcels to each tribal family, and sold the rest of the reservation to non-Indians.


The government set aside enough acres for President Theodore Roosevelt to establish the National Bison Range in 1908, at the urging of the American Bison Society. The tribes were paid only $1.56 per acre. Then the government stocked the range with some of the tribes’ former herd.


“That’s why,” says tribal chairman Matt, “we feel so passionate about this.”


The author writes from Missoula, Montana.

National Bison Range Complex 406-644-2211, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes 406-675-2700,
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