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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has reversed his plan to hand over management of the National Bison Range to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, putting the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe's plans to take control of the range in doubt. 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has reversed course on plans to hand management of the National Bison Range to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

His move casts doubt on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ plans to take control of the wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Saying he was committed to not selling or transferring public land, Zinke said Wednesday that the tribes “would play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward.”

“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 an email to the Missoulian. “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.”

CSKT Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley said he had been informed of the new direction a couple weeks ago, but was still waiting for specific details on Interior’s new management proposal.

“We understood that President (Donald) Trump and Secretary Zinke himself had promised about not selling off public lands, but from my perspective, that isn’t what this is,” Finley said Wednesday. “It’s more of a restoration of reservation land, which is different than selling public land. That was the understanding with the previous secretary of interior. We’ll have to speak with the secretary and the (CSKT Tribal) Council, and look at what our possible options are going forward.”

The decision met with mixed response from Montana’s remaining congressional delegation.

“I support more increased local management and look forward to CSKT playing a critical role in the National Bison Range,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in an email.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., had assisted CSKT leaders in crafting the transfer legislation, but does not plan to introduce it at this time, according to his office. Tester spokesman Dave Kuntz said the senator wanted “the Interior Department (to) make this process more transparent and provide folks the opportunity to weigh in on any proposed action. Jon wants to ensure public access is protected at the National Bison Range and that all voices are being heard by the administration.”

The tribes have long maintained the U.S. government illegally took the 18,800-acre site in 1908, which the Salish owners didn’t want to sell in the first place. The government paid the tribes $1.56 an acre, a fraction of its value even in 1912. Almost 60 years later, a court ordered the government to pony up the rest of the actual 1912 market value of $14 an acre, and the tribes were compensated just over $231,000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge now. In January 2016, FWS announced it supported asking Congress to transfer management of the National Bison Range to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the intention of allowing CSKT local control. The tribes drafted legislation for that change in June 2016, but Congress did not act on it.

On Jan 18, the Federal Register published a notice of intent for a new comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge. Its preferred alternative was to transfer the land to BIA control. Zinke’s office reported that most of the public comments on the transfer came from Montanans and “a majority of said comments were against the preferred alternative.”

Zinke visited the National Bison Range in March just days after he was confirmed as Interior Department secretary. He resigned his seat as Montana’s lone congressional representative to take the Cabinet post.

The Interior Department oversees both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A decade ago, a side-by-side management agreement between the tribes and FWS collapsed, with the government locking the tribal employees out and requiring them to turn in their gear as armed federal agents stood guard.

A second agreement, from 2008 to 2010, appeared to be working just fine, until Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the government over lack of a proper environmental assessment. A federal judge ruled in PEER’s favor, stalling the agreement.

CSKT’s status at the refuge remained in limbo until a year ago, when FWS officials – in a surprise move – said they would back legislation to transfer the Bison Range to the tribes if such legislation were introduced in Congress. The tribes drafted their bill, and PEER sued again citing a lack of proper environmental review. That case is still pending.

“I hope this ends it,” Missoula resident and PEER lawsuit participant Susan Campbell Reneau said Wednesday. “That was a diabolical attempt to completely change the direction of management of federal public lands. This has never been something that had anything to do with how I felt about CSKT. Those public lands belong to all of us, including members of CSKT.”

Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation office in Missoula was a long-time supporter of the transfer. While he wanted to get more details about how Zinke’s course-correction would work, he said he disagreed with the idea it was a transfer or sale of public land.

“This would be a real step backward if the Department of Interior reverses 20 years of work,” France said. “The most recent proposal was to turn management to the Salish and Kootenai Tribes, but transfer ownership to the BIA to hold in trust. That’s not divesting public lands at all.”

Zinke said the CSKT would be part of the new comprehensive conservation plan development. However, his statement on Wednesday did not give further details about what his course reversal did, or how the Fish and Wildlife Service would act differently.

“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward,” Zinke said. “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.”

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