Tribes assume complete management of bison range

After decades of stalled efforts to reassert stewardship authority over the nearly 19,000-acre strip of Flathead Indian Reservation land where an iconic herd of bison roam, the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKTs) assumed full management control of what was once known as the National Bison Range, which has been under federal jurisdiction for more than a century.

The push for land reunification and tribal control has been ongoing for over two decades, but was officially reinstated at CSKT on January 2, 2022. In December 2020, Congress passed the Bison Range Restoration Legislation under the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. The legislation was co-sponsored by the three members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and its passage began the two-year transition period to transfer control from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to the tribes. In addition to transferring bison range, the act also settled a long-running treaty negotiation that gave CSKT rights to major water resources inside the Flathead Indian Reservation in exchange for the release of claims to over 10,000 water rights outside its boundaries.

Resolving the age-old dispute over water rights on the reservation signals a monumental deal, but the transfer of management responsibilities for the bison range from federal to tribal oversight marks a historic occasion. For the previous 25 years, the tribes had actively sought to return ownership of the 18,766 acres to a federal trust, which would allow the Salish and Kootenai to assume – or regain – full responsibility for the management of the chain.

“Returning the Buffalo Range to its people is a momentous occasion, honoring the lands, relationships and conservation successes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” FWS Director Martha Williams said in a press release. “We have worked in conjunction with CSKT for many years and look forward to continuing to work together to conserve wildlife. I look forward to visiting CSKT’s Bison Range in the future.

In 1908, the tribes ceded control of land against their will when the government established the National Bison Range in the Mission Valley, on a federal land postage stamp right in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was the first time that Congress specifically earmarked taxpayer dollars for wildlife conservation, making it one of the first wildlife refuges established in America. The American Bison Society purchased 40 bison and released them into the refuge in 1909 where they mixed with a free-range reserve herd. Today, the bison population numbers between 300 and 500 animals, roaming the range alongside elk, white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn sheep and bears. black.

Yet returning management authority to the tribes – which required legislative action – has long been a primary goal for the CSKT.

“Our reunification with this specific bison herd means more to us than we can express,” said CSKT President Tom McDonald. “In addition to our wildlife management, CSKT wants to ensure that the story of our people is told at the Bison Range, which we believe will enhance the public experience and foster a better understanding of Indigenous peoples. »

The entrance to the Buffalo Range is in Moiese, just off U.S. Highway 93. From May through October, visitors can drive the 20-mile one-way Red Sleep Mountain Drive through the heart of the range and to the top of Red Sleep Mountain, now officially united with the Flathead Preserve. There is also a visitor center and museum which are currently being renovated to better reflect the connection between wildlife, natural resources and tribes. The museum is expected to be completed by the spring tourist season.

CSKT is currently planning a celebration later this year to commemorate the Bison Range Tribal Restoration at CSKT.

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