This story was reported for Montana Public Radio by Amy Martin.
After more than 100 years of federal control, the lands of the National Bison Range may be returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Last week, the tribes released draft legislation that would transfer authority over the range from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the CSKT.
At the top of Ravalli Hill, about 40 miles north of Missoula, you can look right into the National Bison Range from an overlook on the side of Highway 93. You can’t always see bison from that spot, but on the day I met Rich Janssen, head of the natural resources department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, we got lucky.
"..seeing the mighty bison, the American bison, commonly called buffalo by the Europeans, que-quay in the Salish language."
Tourists making the trek between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone were stopping to photograph the herd, including the red calves who hopped about while their moms grazed.
"Yeah, that’s a prehistoric animal that thrives, and is very hearty, and obviously was not driven to extinction like they tried, and you can see how well they’re doing right now," Janssen says. "It’s pretty neat to see that animal walking along the side hills of the Bison Range, that you see them grazing, nonchalantly."
In the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, the United States promised the Flathead Reservation would be the permanent homeland for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people. But in 1908, the federal government carved 18,000 acres out of the reservation to form the National Bison Range. Since the mid-1990s, the tribes have been seeking a larger role in the management of the range. And this past February, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signaled their willingness to return control of the lands to the tribes.
"You know the time is now, it’s a long time coming for this to happen and I’m pretty proud to say that I’m going to be part of history," says Janssen.
Last week, the CSKT released a draft of a bill which would return the range to its pre-1908 status as part of the reservation. The bill would continue bison conservation and public access, while giving the tribes management authority. Janssen says his department is more than ready.
"Our wildlife program is top-notch. I would put our wildlife program, our department, at any level of any other wildlife program within the state. Even nationally. We have the tools and the capabilities to manage this bison range in perpetuity, and I think when that occurs, this will undoubtedly improve what you see at the bison range at this time."
But not everyone supports the proposed transfer. Skip Palmer worked in the maintenance department at the National Bison Range for 16 years.
"Loved it. How could a person not love it? You know, you’re working with wildlife. I spent 16 years basically, amongst other things, chasing bison on horseback. Round ‘em up every year."
Palmer is one of 10 co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. He says PEER is opposed to transferring control to the tribes for several reasons, including his fear that the land will not remain a bison range.
"There’s nothing out there at this point that tells the tribe we want a guarantee from you that you’re going to keep it a bison range ... nope, no guarantee.
The draft legislation proposed by the tribes states that the lands will be managed "solely for the bison, wildlife and other natural resources".
Palmer: "I don’t care what they said."
Martin: "You don’t believe them?"
Palmer says he joined the PEER lawsuit because he believes legislation should not even be proposed unless a full environmental impact statement is completed first.
"They’re introducing something that’s illegal. It shouldn’t go to Congress because it’s illegal to even get that point."
The courts will decide whether or not an environmental impact statement is required: that question may come down to technicalities of who is proposing the legislation – the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the tribes.
"There’s a history of anti-Indian sentiment and active organizing in this community and on these issues."
Carrol-Rivas says the Montana Human Rights Network documented this history in a report from January 2000 called "Drumming Up Resentment."
"And a lot of it centered on the anti-Indian movement against the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe particularly. And touched on the early stages of the opposition to the National Bison Range and that continues to be a concern for us."
Carrol-Rivas says the anti-Indian movement in the Flathead Valley is not as strong as it once was, but that it tends to get re-ignited when the tribes make advancements like the Flathead water compact, or this proposed transfer.
Paula Dinerstein, lead counsel for PEER, doesn’t buy it.
"I think groups are suggesting that because they don’t want to deal with the merits of the case, they want to scream racism instead, and I don’t think there’s any basis for it," Dinerstein said.
Martin: "Well one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Skip Palmer, on his Facebook page right now has a white power symbol."
Dinerstein: "Well, I don’t know anything, I haven’t seen his Facebook page, but I do know Mr. Palmer, and I know he has worked very closely with tribal people who are employed at the range."
Palmer actually left the National Bison Range in part over employment disputes that stemmed from sharing management duties with the tribes.
The Montana Human Rights Network says other plaintiffs have ties to anti-Indian groups as well.
Back at the overlook, however, the visitors who have stopped to watch the bison seem to be less concerned with who is in charge of the land, and more interested in the animals themselves – and not only the bison.
We’re not used to seeing signs that say “danger, rattlesnakes," Jane Heppell said. She and Bob Heppell are from Norfolk, England.
"People are always going to object about something anyway," Bob Heppell says, "but give them chance to have a go, and good luck to them, that’s what I say."
The CSKT have formed a Bison Range Working Group to support the proposed transfer. They are accepting comments on their draft legislation through June 24. The lawsuit by PEER is currently pending in federal court.