PABLO, Mont. - The Flathead Reservation may soon take charge of a federal
bison herd that it saved a century earlier.
After 10 years of negotiation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes
have signed a pact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assume
management functions at the National Bison Range Complex, carved out of the
Flathead Reservation in 1908 under President Theodore Roosevelt. The
proposed Annual Funding Agreement is now going through a 90-day public
comment period, which expires Oct. 11.
Although some opposition has come up, Clayton Matt, head of the tribal
Natural Resources Department said, "We think we're there. We're happy for
that. We're proud of that fact, and we really look forward to implementing
this the first week in May."
The agreement would give the CSKT government responsibility for five
activities in the complex - administration; the biological program,
including habitat management; fire control; maintenance and visitor
services. The territory includes the 18,526 acres of the National Bison
Range at Moiese, the 2,026-acre Ninepipes National Wildlife Refuge and the
2,542-acre Pablo National Wildlife Refuge. The three separate areas all
fall within the boundary of the Flathead Reservation in northwestern
Montana. Ownership and overall management authority of the complex would
remain with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The CSKT began to ask for control of the range complex in 1994, shortly
after passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act. But the negotiations
stalled after drawing powerful opposition from U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns,
R-Mont. A new round of negotiations began nearly two years ago, over a
scaled down management plan.
"Certainly there was some energy here within the tribe and we saw that the
Fish and Wildlife Service was interested in really buckling down and just
working hard to make this happen," said Matt. "Lots of people from the
Department of Interior and the negotiation team, - we had folks from the
regional office - just being willing to sit down and talk through all the
things we had to talk through, taking the time it needed to take to do
that, just made it work. I don't think there was any single magic bullet or
simple answer as to why it worked this time."
Some of the issues involved job security for current federal employees and
other workplace concerns. Matt said the tribe would follow Fish and
Wildlife regulations in administering the complex. Matt Kales, a spokesman
for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Montana reporters that any eventual
agreement must be consistent with all federal laws, regulations and
policies. "The National Bison Range would continue to look and function
like a national wildlife refuge," he said. "In no way do we want to see
this refuge compromised in terms of its function as a national wildlife
Some of the opponents are making the more general case that the agreement
constitutes "privatization of federal land." One current employee told a
local paper, "This is not just a Bison Range issue. This will go on and on
to other federal properties like our national parks. It is in direct
conflict with the (federal) Game Range Act." Some critics expect that the
federal courts will eventually have to rule on what they see as a conflict
between tribal self-determination and the federal mandate to manage the
Sen. Burns has not yet taken a position on the agreement, but he urged
opponents to make their points "substantive, detailed, and direct.
"Open rhetoric and name calling won't do anything except get a comment
stuck in the back of the file," he said.
The tribe, and one historian of the range, observe that the buffalo came
there in the first place because of the efforts of tribal members. Although
bison aren't native to the region, a Pend d'Oreille hunter named Samuel
Walking Coyote brought several orphaned calves back home with him from a
Blackfeet buffalo hunt in 1873. (The Pend d'Oreille tribe is part of the
CSKT confederation.) According to a story reported by Dale Lott in
"American Bison, A Natural History" (University of California Press),
Walking Coyote meant to give the calves to Jesuit missionaries to help
resolve a domestic problem. While hunting with the Blackfeet, he had
married a woman from their tribe, but he already had a family on the
Flathead Reservation. Although the Jesuits refused to absolve him, the
calves thrived and grew into a herd later purchased by tribal members
Charles Allard and Michael Pablo.
Lott, a retired biology professor who grew up on the National Bison Range,
observed that the $2,000 purchase of the herd in 1884 was "probably the
first time in Montana history that a bison was worth more alive than dead."
By 1906, Pablo owned 600 head. Alarmed by plans to open the Flathead
Reservation to settlers and end the open range, he offered to sell his herd
to the U. S. government. When the U.S. hesitated, he sold them to the
Canadian government instead. Stung by the loss of the herd, the U.S. set up
the National Bison Range and bought back some of the bison that were
shipped to Canada.
"So those bison that populated the National Bison Range when it was first
created were actually related to the bloodline of the bison that were
originally here. So after 1908 and establishment of the National Bison
Range, we believe the bison herd that exists today is still related to
those original bison," said Matt.