Agency may transfer Bison Range to tribes

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the transfer of the National Bison Range to the Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (Daily Inter Lake file photo)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has begun negotiating a possible transfer of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

In an email sent to agency employees Friday, Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Director Noreen Walsh announced the opening round of discussions but provided few specifics.

“Given that we are today in a much better place regarding the future of bison ... and that we want to strengthen our partnership with the CSKT, we believe that now is the right time to investigate the possibility of transferring the refuge, which was long ago carved out of tribal lands, into trust for the benefit of the CSKT,” Walsh wrote.

Her email also noted such a transfer would require an act of Congress.

Agency spokeswoman Anna Muñoz confirmed Monday that the federal agency had initiated the process but declined to provide further details of the possible transfer.

“This is literally the beginning of a conversation that started on Friday,” Muñoz said. “We just felt like this was the right time to start having discussions on how we can enter a new phase.”

Despite the preliminary nature of the talks, one group that has opposed previous efforts to give the tribes a role in management of the refuge says it has significant concerns.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national advocacy organization, issued a sharply critical press release on Monday after obtaining the emails. Executive director Jeff Ruch noted that past agreements have maintained a federal stake in the refuge.

“There’s a long, fairly recent history of having the tribes co-manage it that has been unsuccessful,” Ruch said in an interview Tuesday. “In this case they’re not talking about shared management, they’re talking about legislation that would hand it over to the tribes.”

The 18,766-acre Bison Range 80 miles south of Kalispell near Moiese was established for the preservation of American bison in 1908 at a time when the once-bountiful animals had been hunted nearly to extinction.

In the years since, the tribes have sought to re-establish management and ownership of the Bison Range, and after nearly 20 years of negotiations, entered into a shared-management agreement with the federal wildlife agency in 2005.

The following year, the Fish and Wildlife Service abruptly ended the agreement, citing problems with the tribes’ performance and work environment. Tribal officials disagreed, dismissing the agency’s action as a political move.

In 2008, the parties reached a new agreement for splitting management of the refuge, but that ended in 2010 when a federal judge ruled that the funding component of the agreement violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Tribal spokesman Rob McDonald said Tuesday that the tribes have remained in constant conversations with the Fish and Wildlife Service since that ruling.

He declined to specify what shape the final agreement could take, noting that the latest process has only just been initiated.

In an email, McDonald stated, “As with all of the tribes’ lands, we are committed to the responsible management of the land in a way that is consistent with tribal values — values we share with all Montanans.”

In an interview, McDonald noted that tribal members Michel Pablo and Charles Allard had been the caretakers of many of the original bison in the herd, but Pablo was forced to sell them off after the reservation opened to homesteading in 1910.

According to the Bison Range website, the original range consisted of five land allotments purchased in 1908 by the U.S. government. The American Bison Society raised money to purchase bison from the handful of remaining herds, including those descended from Pablo and Allard’s herd.

The stated mission of the refuge is “to provide a representative herd of bison, or buffalo, under reasonably natural conditions [and] to help ensure the preservation of the species for continued public benefit and enjoyment.”

In another email sent to agency employees Friday, National Wildlife Refuge System Chief Cynthia Martinez wrote that the service and its partners have been “highly successful in meeting that mission” and expressed confidence in the tribes to continue that legacy.

Ruch, however, questioned that rationale, and said it could be applied to many refuges with similar mission statements.

“Certainly the bison is in much better shape, but my question is does that mean they’re giving it to the tribes with the expectation that they would no longer operate it as a refuge?” he asked.

His press release also questioned assurances that the bison range’s employees would be taken care of. Seven Fish and Wildlife Service employees currently work at the refuge, according to Muñoz.

In her email, Walsh assured the bison range staffers that “they will all remain valued employees of the service, regardless of the outcome of these discussions.”

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

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