Zinke: U.S. won’t transfer Bison Range to tribes

Discussions will continue about larger management role for Salish and Kootenai

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The U.S. Department of the Interior has dropped plans to consider transferring ownership of the National Bison Range at Moiese to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (Daily Inter Lake file photo)

In a significant policy reversal, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced Wednesday it will no longer pursue the possible returning of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made the announcement via an emailed statement, linking his decision to his opposition to transferring public lands out of federal jurisdiction.

“I took a hard look at the current proposal suggesting a new direction for the National Bison Range and assessed what this would mean for Montana and the nation,” Zinke said in the statement. “As Secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior’s resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present and future, which is why I have changed course.”

Days before President Donald Trump took office in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the outgoing administration had initiated an environmental review to explore the possibility of the transfer. The Bison Range is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System administered by the federal agency.

“I have said I will not sell or transfer public land. I remain steadfast in that commitment, which reflects my decision today,” Zinke’s statement continued. “That said, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward. We can do a far better job expanding access and informing the public about the National Bison Range. CSKT will be instrumental in helping make this significant place a true reflection of our cultural heritage.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s discussions with the tribes exploring the possible ownership change of the 18,000-acre wildlife refuge became public in January 2016. The tribes have long sought the return of the land to the Flathead Indian Reservation, after Congress in 1908 unilaterally removed it to create a preserve for American Bison — a species then teetering on the brink of extinction.

In an emailed statement after the announcement, CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley thanked Zinke for personally calling to announce his decision, and urged him to continue working with the tribes on management policy on the Bison Range.

“The National Bison Range is located in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation and will always be a central part of the conservation areas managed by the tribes’ nationally recognized natural resources department,” Finley said in the statement. “Our stewardship interests there remain, and I look forward to continued discussions with Secretary Zinke and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding tribal management.”

Returning the refuge to the tribes would require an act of Congress. Last year, the tribes finalized draft legislation to do so, although none of Montana’s three members of Congress indicated whether they would sponsor the bill.

The proposed legislation would have placed the land under a federal trust for the tribes, similar to other reservation lands, and transferred buildings and other improvements to tribal ownership. It also emphasized continued public access to the popular wildlife preserve, as well as continued management of the property as a refuge for the bison herd and other wildlife.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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