MOIESE – Last week, the first bison calf was spotted by the staff here at the National Bison Range.
It is the signal for them to prepare for their opening weekend, which they try to schedule near Mother’s Day, “when all the calves are roaming around,” said National Bison Range Project Leader Jeff King.
Between 300 and 400 bison are kept on 18,500 fenced acres surrounded by the Flathead Indian Reservation.
In a year, the range can receive up to 200,000 visitors. In 2011, they produced an economic impact to the surrounding area of about $13 million, according to a report commissioned by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Today, six people are employed here, with four vacant positions. The position of refuge officer sat empty for about a year, but is expected to be filled next month. That will be in time for the opening of Red Sleep Drive and the start of the summer visitation season, King said.
The park is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The visitor center also used to be open daily, but those hours have been cut back and an “iron ranger” has been installed to collect fees when the center is closed.
The National Wildlife Refuge Association said the refuge system, including the Bison Range, is operating with approximately 20 percent less funds than six years ago.
In January, the Bison Range was stepping up efforts to recruit unpaid volunteers. The list of things that needed doing ranged from staffing the Visitor Center, to mowing public use areas, to clerical duties, to assisting on biological projects.
Besides federal budget cuts, the range's future was put in limbo after a federal judge in 2010 pulled the plug on an annual funding agreement that split refuge jobs between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
A year ago, FWS said the agency would back transferring management of the Bison Range to the tribes if legislation were introduced in Congress to remove the range from the National Wildlife Refuge system, and FWS control.
But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department oversees the Fish and Wildlife Service, announced last week that he was rescinding the offer to transfer control of the Bison Range to Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, which would have allowed the CSKT to manage the range.
Saying he was committed to not selling or transferring public land, Zinke said the tribes “would play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward'' but gave no details about what direction that path would take.
Range staff members said Friday they couldn't talk about the future of the refuge. King was giving his supervisor, Bernie Petersen of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, a tour of the range that day. But Peterson said couldn't he talk about its status because he had to catch a plane to Colorado.
A spokesperson in Colorado directed all questions to an Interior Department spokesperson in Washington D.C. But no one from the department responded to requests for information about the range's future.
On Jan 18, the Federal Register asked for public comment on transferring the land to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and creating a new comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge.
Zinke’s office reported most of the public comments came from Montanans and “a majority of said comments were against the preferred alternative'' of transferring the range to BIA and giving management to the tribes.
CSK Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley said Zinke spoke to him before making his announcement last week. The prospect of managing the range would have been exciting, Finley said. But there were sizable obstacles to that dream becoming reality, including the negative voices that always accompany change, especially if it involves tribal self governance.
“The disappointing part is the voice and the ear that they are given,” Finley said.
Finley said when CSKT took over the management of Mission Valley Power, “you would have thought the world was coming to an end.” But today, he said, the tribe offers some of the lowest energy rates in the state.
A tribe managing a bison herd should seem logical, Finley said. But "people seem so worried what might happen.''
"They are afraid if we’re given the power to do so, we’ll get even, get revenge,” Finley said. “To try to get revenge would be a larger betrayal to our cultural world view than the rewards for doing so.”
The herd roaming the Bison Range descends from bison saved by Native Americans, Finley said.
Millions of bison roamed the West before they were hunted to near extinction by non-Indians. “It wasn’t for the meat,” Finley said. “It was a way of destroying a food source of the then-perceived enemy.”
Dani Lyday and her mother, Tammy Wadsworth, own and run The 44 Bar & Outwest Grill in St. Ignatius, about 20 minutes from the refuge.
The business it brings in is nice, Lyday said. With the lake nearby, though, she said she wouldn’t be worried about the restaurant hurting without the range. People may travel from all over the country to see the bison, but she said locals go there more than anybody.
Lyday has heard some of the debate about the future of the range and whether it should be transferred to tribal ownership. She said she doesn’t have strong feelings, either way.
“The bison range is a beautiful, positive place,” Lyday said. “I think most people just want to enjoy it, without looking at any politics.”
Finley said the tribes will always be invested in maintaining and protecting bison herds because of what happened to them both.
“Millions and millions of Native Americans nearly wiped to extinction,'' he said. “Kind of have a shared history.”