National Bison Range

A road winds up into the hills of the National Bison Range at Moiese with the Flathead River in the distance. Years of controversy and discord over the management of the Bison Range have shadowed the area's rich environmental and cultural heritage.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest plans for the National Bison Range don’t involve transferring it to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. But they do leave the door open to future joint management with that group.

This stipulation was included in a 204-page draft Environmental Impact Statement released Thursday. It’s being prepared for the National Bison Range’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, meant to guide management of this National Wildlife Refuge for the next 15 to 20 years.

The 18,800-acre National Bison Range has seen a complex, long-running exchange between the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the tribes over management. The wildlife refuge was carved from within the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1908, and the Salish and Kootenai Tribes have long sought greater involvement in its operation.

From 2005 to 2006, and again from 2009 to 2010, the tribes and the FWS attempted to manage the Bison Range together under Annual Funding Agreements; both proved unsuccessful. A 2016 effort to place it into trust for the tribes drew a lawsuit from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The FWS eventually settled, and agreed instead to prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Refuge.

During the months-long process of drafting these plans, tribal leadership reiterated their goals for the Bison Range. In a press release last month, Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan stated that “we continue to believe that restoration of the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the Tribes is the best solution. It is also historically just. The Tribes work hard as natural resource and wildlife managers and we look forward to extending our work at the Bison Range.”

But in its Conservation Plans, the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t considering the prospect of a transfer. The Conservation Plan states that “transferring the NBR to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) is not evaluated in this document.”

It does raise the prospect of future funding agreements. Under all three possible courses of action laid out by the plan, “the Service could enter into an annual funding agreement pursuant to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. … The funding agreement would require the CSKT to operate the refuge according to the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, as amended, and according to the (comprehensive conservation plan)."

Under the agency’s “preferred alternative” course of action, “the Service would explore opportunities to cooperate with the CSKT on bison conservation and management. We recommend completing a feasibility study to investigate and document all options.” It suggests starting some kind of tribally managed bison herd with surplus animals from the refuge.

Tribal attorney Brian Upton said that however the plans turn out, the tribes retain the ability to seek annual funding agreements or pursue placement into trust. “The tribes’ restoration legislation or request for a transfer is completely independent of the CCP” process, he said.

Beyond the question of the tribes’ role, the plan also outlines the Bison Range’s future if it stays in the National Wildlife Refuge System long term. Currently, the Bison Range anchors the National Bison Range Complex, a cluster of six protected areas around the Mission and Flathead valleys.

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Whichever alternative the agency selects, these units will eventually be consolidated into a much larger “Western Montana Complex,” consisting of the Bison Range Complex, plus Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Benton Lake Wetland Management District, Swan River National Wildlife Refuge and Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. This new complex will have an estimated 22 full-time, permanent staff.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility declined to comment on the draft document. But this planning process has previously drawn concern from that organization and some former Fish and Wildlife Service Employees, who surmised that the agency was pursuing too fast a timetable to produce a quality document that could withstand litigation.

While producing these plans typically takes three to five years, the Fish and Wildlife Service had initially planned to complete the Bison Range’s in less than two, citing an executive order that sought to streamline environmental review processes. It has since moved the plan’s target completion date from the end of this month to July. A plan for the Bison Range Complex’s other units remains slated for completion next year.

The draft comprehensive conservation plan is available for review at fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/nbrc.php, and open to public comment until May 20. In addition, the Fish and Wildlife Service will host public meetings about the plan in Missoula on April 30; in Polson on May 1; and in Charlo on May 2. Visit the website above for times and locations.

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