Tribes Set to Share Management of National Bison Range

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - The Bush administration has approved an agreement to give the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes roughly half the funding and management responsibilities for the National Bison Range.

The deal is the product of a 10 year effort by the tribes to participate in management of the range, but it has upset many conservation groups, some federal refuge managers and more than 120 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service retirees.

The accord, signed Wednesday by Interior Department officials and tribal leaders, in effect splits funding and management duties at the range between the federal government and the tribes.

Congress has 90 days to approve the agreement.

Established in 1908 to conserve the American bison, the 18,500 acre National Bison Range lies within the tribal homelands on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The tribes contend their lands were illegally taken for the creation of the range contrary to terms set forth in an treaty signed with the United States in 1855. range

The National Bison Range in western Montana. (Photo by Jesse Achtenberg courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Bison Range agreement gives the tribes responsibility for a variety of activities, including visitor services, collection of fees, bird surveys and banding operations, vegetation monitoring and invasive plant control in addition to wildfire suppression and prescribed burning.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will maintain ownership of and management authority over all lands and buildings at the Bison Range and will provide necessary training to the tribes.

"We have worked together on many projects with both the Bison Range staff and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service," said Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Council, "We believe this new partnership will help us all as stewards of the land."

The agreement was negotiated under a 1994 law that allows Native tribes to request participation in activities carried out by the Interior Department that are of geographic, historic or cultural significance to the requesting tribe.

Federal officials say the National Bison Range meets those criteria because of its location within the reservation and the fact that some of the bison descend from a herd managed by tribal members more than a century ago.

The range supports a herd of some 350 to 500 bison and also provides key habitat for elk and pronghorn antelope as well as more than 200 bird species and an array of native grasses.

Some 250,000 people visit the range each year - a $4 entry fee is charged from May through late October.

Only one other deal has been brokered under the 1994 law, known as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

That agreement allows some Alaskan tribes to do some contracted work on the Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

This accord goes much further and critics worry it is poorly constructed and could open the door to future agreements that allow commercial development of public lands. bison

Millions of bison once roamed the American plains. (Photo by Jesse Achtenberg courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
In a letter sent earlier this month to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, more than 120 Fish and Wildlife Service retirees outlined concern that the deal is "primarily a political arrangement, developed without any policy framework to guide precedent-setting negotiations."

The Interior Department lists 31 wildlife refuges and 34 national parks where it will entertain offers from tribes to take over operations on the same basis as the agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Opponents of the National Bison Range plan add that negotiations were done behind closed doors and federal officials have not provided details on how much the deal will cost.

In addition they worry the tribes lack the experience to take over management roles at the range and say the deal does not spell out how they will be trained to fulfill their new responsibilities.

"The Department of Interior is choosing to leap before it looks at the consequences," said Grady Hocutt, a former refuge manager now with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group.