Our beloved National Bison Range, a place unlike any other within the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge System, is not getting the kind of support it needs to meet its vast potential as a world-class sanctuary to hundreds of wild bison.
The 18,500-acre-plus range was established along the Mission Mountain Range within the Flathead Reservation more than a century ago, and today welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the globe each year. They come to soak up the incomparable beauty of the place, absorb a bit of the region’s rich history and culture and, of course, to watch the herds of buffalo roam. Four nearby wildlife refuges and a wetland management district make up a larger complex that sustains numerous native plant and animal species.
But the range is suffering from a lack of funds, unresolved management disputes and unreliable leadership at the federal level. Unknotting the tangle of interests to produce an effective management plan has proven difficult at best, and will likely require more time yet. However, there’s no reason at all to continue depriving the range of the funding it needs to operate effectively and sustainably.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who call the Flathead Reservation home have long maintained a strong claims to the National Bison Range lands and its wildlife. Over the decades, they have fought for a more substantial role in managing the range, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waffled over one plan after another.
It appeared long overdue progress would at last be made – and much-needed attention would at last be paid – when Ryan Zinke was tapped to lead the Interior Department in 2017. In the time before he took office, the federal government announced a plan to officially transfer management of the range to the tribes.
But then Zinke announced that his agency would again be “changing course,” thus leaving the future of the range in limbo. And now that he has been replaced by Secretary David Bernhardt, the range is all but certain to continue to languish.
Even before Zinke’s tenure, since 2015, the range has limped along with just one-third of the annual budget it was previously allotted. For staff, this has meant significantly reduced hours and personnel. For the public, it has meant reduced Visitor Center hours. And for the range itself, it has meant forgoing building repairs and delaying other maintenance projects, such as fixing sections of fencing.
Last Sunday, the Missoulian shared the results of a 10-month investigation into the problems plaguing the Bison Range Complex. That report revealed the results of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to divert more than $624,000 from the range in a single year, and the effects of cutting the range’s annual budget from as much as $2.7 million from 2012 to 2014, to just $1.2 million today.
The diverted money was intended to seal a final agreement between the tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but even after Zinke nixed that deal, the money was never restored to the range.
Missoulian reporter Patrick Reilly filed a freedom of information request to learn that range staff was cut by more than half between 2015 and 2019, that cracks in the Visitor Center building were not being addressed, and that sections of the 15-mile perimeter fence were rotting, putting both wildlife and the public at risk.
He also noted that Bison Range manager Jeff King was calling attention to the deteriorating situation back in May 2017, when King wrote, “we are (past) the muscle and bone and in to the marrow on our ability to even manage our highest priorities, and even those things are suffering.”
It’s clear from the records that the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in using funds marked for range operations for other purposes. It’s also clear from the string of broken federal proposals that the CSKT have never been afforded their due say in guiding the future of the range.
The tribes can be forgiven some measure of skepticism on the merits of making agreements with the federal government. Nonetheless, they ought to be invited back to negotiations and assured their voice will no longer be ignored.
In years past, groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Blue Goose Alliance have successfully argued the case for continued federal oversight of the range. And it’s only right that federal oversight should attend any use of federal funds. Those are, after all, dollars that belong to the people of the United States, and the people have a right and a responsibility to ensure they are spent in a way that reflects the will and the wishes of the people.
A good management agreement will recognize the tribes’ indisputable ties to the range lands and wildlife, while incorporating an oversight structure that satisfies the public’s interest as well.
Montana’s congressional delegates should be pressuring the federal officials at every level to come to the table with CSKT leaders to hash out a new agreement without delay. In the meantime, they ought to be calling for a full restoration of funding so the range can get back up to speed. It will take time to make needed repairs and hire new personnel; the range should not suffer further postponements.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte have a job to do: Make sure the National Bison Range has the funding it needs to maintain its reputation as the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.