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CSKT set to take over management of National Bison Range

Posted at 10:43 AM, Dec 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-28 12:43:41-05

President Donald Trump’s decision to sign the COVID-19 stimulus bill, which also had a funding bill attached, has wide ramifications.

It makes the Montana Water Protection Act law, which in turn gives the management of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Since the early 2000s, management of the National Bison Range at the southern end of the Mission Valley has been a point for debate.

The federal government had taken the land from the Flathead Reservation to form the wildlife reserve in 1908, a "taking" that was overruled by the courts 60 years later.

But it's taken nearly another 50 years for the tribe and the federal government to reach agreement on the tribe's role in operating the Bison Range.

Now, a clause in the Montana Water Rights Protection Act finally gives that management completely over to the tribe -- and the step is immediate as soon as the legislation is final.

“That was automatic in the bill, so again, we're just waiting for the bill to be signed,” CSKT Tribal Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said.

The question of Bison Range management has been in a state of flux for the past few years, drawn through lawsuits, including those from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which objected to what would happen to US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff.

Opponents also raised questions over the qualifications of the tribe to manage the bison and other wildlife that make their home on the slopes of Red Sleep Mountain and the surrounding grasslands.

But eventually, the various proposals for that management transition coalesced into the legislation approved by Congress. And Fyant is once more echoing the tribes' pledge to not only care for the wildlife but continue full public access.

“Yes, and who better to do it than the original inhabitants of the land who depended on the Buffalo for centuries? That was our mainstay,” Fyant said.

The transition marks another interesting chapter in the tribes' history with the bison and the herd with a lineage dating to the late 1800s. Coupled with the water rights settlement, Fyant says it's a gift to the people.

“This is such great news going into the holiday season and the New Year, and I'm sure that the elders who participated in the negotiations over the past years are doing a victory dance in heaven right now.”

Fyant says the tribe will be working out details of the transition from the USFWS in the coming weeks.