By the time Teddy Roosevelt founded the National Bison Range in 1908, Salish people had already been actively preserving buffalo in the Mission Valley for 35 years. On June 19, in the year of the facility’s centennial, Flathead tribal leaders and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials signed an agreement to return the range to Indian American control—probably for good.
“The people here know we can do anything,” says James Steele, Jr., chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. “We’re a people who have been told, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ …To get back on the ground here is another way to show that we’re capable.”
The June deal reverts the National Bison Range to tribal control beginning in 2009 with contracts auto-renewing on a three-year cycle. Perhaps more importantly, the agreement also concludes a longstanding period of unfriendly relations between the Flathead tribes and local U.S. Fish and Wildlife offices.
Much of the acrimony stemmed from a previous attempt to revert the land to tribal control, which ultimately satisfied neither party. In late 2006, the federal government revoked the tribes’ original contract—set up under the 1994 Tribal Self Governance Act—on allegations of mismanagement. The maneuver elicited claims of racial prejudice from various human rights groups and the tribes themselves.
“We were locked out and forced to leave at gunpoint,” says tribal spokesman Rob McDonald.
The bad blood flowing from the 2006 revocation meant talks to rebuild the agreement went nowhere until last November, when the Interior Department—U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s parent agency—ordered a deal by late spring.
What eventually emerged was a pact giving more responsibility to the tribes with improved oversight of management activities. Even critics of the old plan, like the conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), admit that what came out of the fray looks pretty solid.
“We’re pleasantly surprised. It remains to be seen how it works in practice, but it looks good on paper,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch says. “The agreement seemed to reflect lessons learned on both sides.”
Ruch adds he’s still concerned this trend could see the eventual transfer of 20-25 percent of wildlife refuges away from federal management, but says the greater interest remains making sure the agreements get “done right.”