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Tribes draft proposed legislation for transfer of National Bison Range
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transfer of National Bison Range

Tribes draft proposed legislation for transfer of National Bison Range

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A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee uses a four-wheeler to herd bison on the National Bison Range last October during the annual roundup. The federal government is considering transferring the range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

PABLO – Draft legislation for returning the National Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – which would continue bison conservation purposes, and maintain public access to the wildlife refuge – has been prepared by the tribes.

CSKT on Friday made the draft public, and announced the formation of the Bison Range Working Group to accept public comment on it. The tribes have said they are in discussions with Montana’s congressional delegation about introducing such a bill.

The draft legislation comes after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a move that caught many by surprise, told CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley in February it would support a transfer.

A lawsuit that maintains the federal agency failed to conduct necessary environmental reviews before doing so was filed last month.

The group that filed the suit, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, claimed the legislation, which had not yet been written, much less introduced, would contain no requirements for the tribes to maintain the Bison Range as a wildlife refuge or to admit the public, nor make any provision for the 350 to 400 bison who call it home.

The draft legislation appears to address all three issues.

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In its current form, the bill would relinquish to the tribes “all interests the United States may have in the bison on the lands transferred under this act.”

The next clause says the lands will be managed exclusively by CSKT, and “solely for the care and maintenance of the bison, wildlife and other natural resources.” It also gives the tribes the right to re-name the refuge, “provided that the tribes shall provide public visitation and education opportunities.”

There are provisions dealing with some financial matters, but none that would provide federal funding for operating the Bison Range if a transfer was proposed and approved in Congress.

The refuge has an annual budget of approximately $1 million, and fluctuates depending on how fully staffed it is.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service made clear that, once it leaves the National Refuge System, there would be no funding coming to operate it,” CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald told the Missoulian on Friday. “All operating costs would fall upon the tribes.”

The proposed bill does call for the United States to provide sufficient funding for liability insurance covering tort actions filed by members of the public, “as long as public visitation is required by federal law for the lands transferred by this act.”

It also calls for the Secretary of Interior to transfer funds, property, personal equipment and other resources deemed proper by the secretary to assist with the types of activities currently performed at the Bison Range for a period of two years.

McDonald said that clause deals with special programs such as weed control.

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The legislation seeks to reduce the impact the transfer would have on Sanders and Lake counties, which McDonald said currently annually receive approximately $11,000 and $9,000, respectively, from the federal government because the Bison Range is located in their counties.

The provision calls for the Department of Interior to pay each county 90 percent of what it would get if the refuge were still federal land in the first year the land would be transferred to the tribes, 75 percent the second year and 50 percent in years three through five.

Such payments would end after that.

Yet another clause appears to address PEER concerns that this could be the first step in the weakening or dismantling of the National Refuge System. It states that “the provisions of this act are uniquely suited to address the distinct circumstances, facts, history and relationships” involved with the Bison Range and local Indian tribes.

“These provisions are not intended, and shall not be interpreted, as precedent for any other situation regarding federal properties or facilities,” it says.

The draft notes that the refuge was established in 1908, at a time bison were in grave threat of extinction, and the land for it on the Flathead Indian Reservation was removed from tribal control without tribal consent. The present herd, it says, descends from one started and maintained by tribal members in the late 19th century, and the animals are “no longer critically imperiled.”

The legislation also recognizes CSKT’s “extensive experience in wildlife and natural resource management.” That includes the nation’s first tribally designated wilderness area, the 91,000-acre Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness, and the restoration and management of bighorn sheep populations, peregrine falcons and trumpeter swans on the Flathead Reservation.

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“The Bison Range is a treasure and, as good neighbors, we want to ensure that everyone is able to review and comment on the legislative language before it is finalized,” McDonald said after the proposed bill was rolled out Friday morning.

The act’s purposes, according to the act itself, include:

  • To acknowledge the tribes’ history, culture, and ecological stewardship with respect to the subject lands, bison and other natural resources.
  • To ensure that the subject lands, bison and other resources continue to be protected and enhanced.
  • To continue public visitation opportunities.
  • To ensure a smooth transition for the subject lands, bison and other natural resources as the land is restored to federal trust ownership for the benefit of the tribes.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range in 1908 when he signed legislation passed by Congress. The refuge covers 18,500 acres on the reservation, and is home to many forms of wildlife, from bears to rattlesnakes, in addition to bison.

The tribes have twice in recent years tried to partner with the Fish and Wildlife Service in the operation of the refuge under annual funding agreements. The first ended ugly.

Tensions mounted at the range during an 18-month period, with increasingly heated accusations concerning job performance and sabotage coming from both sides. It came to a head on Dec. 11, 2006, when FWS pulled the plug on the agreement, locked tribal employees out of the refuge and required them to turn in their gear the next day under the eye of armed federal agents.

A second agreement that put FWS and tribal employees side by side at the Bison Range in 2009-10 seemed to be working fine, but PEER got a federal judge to shoot that one down, essentially because an environmental assessment had not been done.

PEER, along with 10 individual plaintiffs that include former Bison Range managers and employees, are making the same argument in the latest lawsuit. Among other things, it wants a judge to ban the agency from sponsoring, advocating for, or promoting the transfer until an environmental assessment, and Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge, have been completed.

The Bison Range Working Group will be accepting public comment on the draft legislation for two weeks. The current proposed language can be viewed at bisonrangeworkinggroup.org.

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