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MOIESE – Will a third time be a charm?

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes continue to talk with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about another annual funding agreement that would transfer various degrees of management and operation of the National Bison Range to them, one of their attorneys said Thursday.

Brian Upton, an attorney for the tribes, went over some of the history of the tribes’ efforts at the Bison Range with about 40 attorneys and law school students attending the 36th annual Public Land Law Conference at the University of Montana.

This year’s conference theme is “Transcending Boundaries: Achieving Success in Cooperative Management of Natural Resources.”

Much of the first day of the two-day conference was a road trip to the Flathead Indian Reservation, where conference attendees heard from Upton and Germaine White, information and education specialist for CSKT’s Natural Resources Department, at the Bison Range on Thursday morning.

They spent the afternoon at Salish Kootenai Dam, the major hydroelectric facility CSKT acquired just last month, before returning to Missoula for the conference’s keynote address from Hilary Tompkins, solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior.

Conference editor Hannah Cail said Friday will be spent focusing on three subjects: water resources, wildlife, and climate and energy.


When White asked the group how many had moved at least once in their lives, it appeared that every hand went up. When she asked how many had moved at least four times, most stayed up.

“How many of you still live in the same place where your ancestors lived 12,000 years ago?” she asked.

As every hand was lowered, White raised hers.

If you wrapped those 12,000 years around a clock, she said, it meant that Lewis and Clark arrived in Montana at approximately “11:58 p.m.” The changes that have followed for Native Americans have occurred in a tiny fraction of those 12,000 years, White added.

It was part of a quick history that included bison in America, bison in the Mission Valley, the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 and the Bison Range itself that White delivered before turning the floor over to Upton.


“As you know, we have a difficult history of trying to partner with the Fish and Wildlife Service” to help manage the Bison Range, Upton told conference attendees.

The agency pulled the plug on a first agreement that put CSKT employees “on the ground” at the Bison Range in 2005-06 amid heated charges and exchanges by both sides.

Upton credited a “changing of the guard” at both the Bison Range and FWS with a second agreement that put tribal employees back working with ones from FWS at the wildlife refuge in 2009-10.

“It was a much more constructive atmosphere, and a great partnership,” Upton said. “You heard a lot of vitriol and invective” leading up to and after the first funding agreement, and not nearly as much with the second.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., shot down the second agreement, essentially because an environmental assessment had not been done.

An extended deadline for public comment on a proposed third annual funding agreement ended more than a year ago. After he was finished with his presentation, the Missoulian asked Upton how close another agreement was.

“It’s unclear how close we are,” he said. “We are talking with the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we know it’s a priority for them.”


Canada and Australia are leading the way in showing how public land management partnerships with aboriginal peoples can work, according to Upton.

“I know it seems scary to some people,” he said, “but if you look at what other places have done, the benefits are undeniable.”

He pointed to Kakadu National Park – at nearly half the size of Switzerland, the largest national park in Australia.

More than half the park is aboriginal land, and all of it is special to its “traditional” owners. Those aboriginal peoples manage the park in partnership with Parks Australia, and play “a key role in everything from board decisions to hands-on management of weeds and feral animals,” according to the park.

“I’ve been there,” Upton said, “and they told me just wearing the park uniforms was very empowering to them. They felt a part of what the government was doing on their property.”

The Bison Range is federal land, Upton noted, but two other national wildlife refuge units that fall under Bison Range management – the Ninepipe and Pablo refuges – are on land owned by the tribes.

“That creates an unusual situation that is not replicated anywhere else in the country,” Upton said.

The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1974 was a “game-changer,” Upton said, and the 1994 Tribal Self Governance Act enabled the tribes to seek to become a part of the operation and management of the Bison Range.

They’ve been trying for 21 years now.

A group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has opposed CSKT’s efforts at the Bison Range at every turn, saying it opens up 80 percent of the National Wildlife Refuge System and 57 national parks in 19 states to similar agreements with other Indian tribes. PEER filed the lawsuit that got the last agreement rescinded.

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