Management plan doesn’t include transfer to tribes

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Bison foraging Saturday morning at the National Bison Range near Moiese used their muzzles to sweep aside snow to get at grasses and traveled along a plowed road instead of consuming energy by plunging into snowdrifts. The bison range visitor center is closed for the season, re-opening the weekend of Mother's Day, and access to much of the range is currently limited by snow. (Duncan Adams/Daily Inter Lake)

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes announced more than two weeks ago a desire to revisit restoring the National Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the benefit of the tribes.

The tribes noted that the land for the National Bison Range, which lies entirely within the boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation, had been taken in 1908-1909 without their consent. They said they are prepared now to extend their work as natural resource and wildlife managers to include the 18,800-acre site on the reservation near Moiese.

On Thursday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the National Bison Range, described a draft management plan that could provide a framework for the next 15 years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service described three alternatives, including one that would change nothing, for management of the Bison Range. None of the alternatives included provisions for restoring the site to federal trust ownership for the tribes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the public will have 45 days to comment on a draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and associated environmental impact statement. Comments can be submitted through May 20.

The news release from the Fish and Wildlife Service reported a planning team that included federal, tribal and local government agencies jointly developed the Comprehensive Conservation Plan/EIS.

The cooperating agencies included the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Lake and Sanders counties.

Robert McDonald, a spokesman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, reacted in an email Thursday to the news release from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The tribes have not yet had a chance to review the draft CCP/EIS, so we do not have any comment at this time,” he said. “We do have confidence in the process through which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed this document, which involved a great deal of collaboration and public input.”

McDonald said the tribes, as a cooperating agency, knew that release of the draft management plan was nigh when the tribes announced interest in legislation that could restore the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the tribes, but said that pursuit “is unrelated to the CCP/EIS process.”

Meanwhile, Michael D’Agostino, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, addressed the issue in an email on Thursday.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ recent proposal to restore National Bison Range land to federal trust ownership for the Tribes,” D’Agostino said.

“This proposal is not currently included in the National Bison Range management alternatives released today for public comment,” he said. “We welcome public comment on the current alternatives, which were developed collaboratively with CSKT and other partners, in addition to any other feedback, input and ideas that could benefit future refuge management.”

D’Agostino said the Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to work cooperatively with the tribes as the service moves forward with the Comprehensive Conservation Planning process to guide future management of the Bison Range.

“We remain committed to building partnerships, increasing trust and transparency, and serving as good neighbors with CSKT and our other conservation partners,” he said.

On March 20, the tribes reported they had notified the Montana Congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of the Interior of CSKT’s interest in taking over management of the Bison Range, currently home to several hundred bison, as well as elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.

The public can review the draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan and environmental impact statement at www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/nbrc.php

Comments can be submitted to scoping_NBR@fws.gov.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold three public meetings about the draft CCP/EIS.

The first will be held April 30 in Missoula. Meetings will follow in Polson on May 1 at the Red Lion Inn, and at the Bison Range Visitor Center on May 2. Meetings begin at 5 p.m.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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