Montana Senators Sponsor Bill to Return National Bison Range to Local Tribes

John S. Adams January 7, 2020

Bison graze on the National Bison Range, located in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.

Editor’s Note: This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by Mon­tana Free Press on Dec. 10 and is repub­lished here under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. The bill report­ed on here was offi­cial­ly intro­duced on Dec. 11 in the Sen­ate Indi­an Affairs Com­mit­tee and was co-spon­sored by Sen. Jon Tester (D‑Mont.).

A bill that would set­tle a long­stand­ing water rights dis­pute between the Con­fed­er­at­ed Sal­ish and Koote­nai Tribes and the Mon­tana state gov­ern­ment and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment would also return con­trol of the Nation­al Bison Range to the tribes. 

While the exact lan­guage of the bill has not yet been made pub­lic, a draft obtained by Mon­tana Free Press includes a sec­tion that revers­es a 111-year-old act of Con­gress that took the lands com­pris­ing the Bison Range from the tribes. The Bison Range is entire­ly with­in the bor­ders of the Flat­head Indi­an Reservation. 

A spokes­woman for Mon­tana Repub­li­can U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said Daines plans to intro­duce the leg­is­la­tion this week. Daines Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Katie Schoet­tler con­firmed that the bill Daines plans to intro­duce would restore trib­al con­trol of some 18,800 acres that are cur­rent­ly part of the Nation­al Wildlife Refuge Sys­tem and man­aged by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

This is part of the agree­ment and com­pro­mise reached in exchange for the tribe mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions to water claims, includ­ing all in the Flat­head [Val­ley],” Daines said in a state­ment to MTFP. 

Daines last week announced his sup­port for fed­er­al set­tle­ment frame­work leg­is­la­tion that would rat­i­fy the CSKT-Mon­tana com­pact passed by the 2015 Mon­tana Leg­is­la­ture and set­tle remain­ing dis­putes over fed­er­al mis­man­age­ment of the tribes’ water. 

The deal also includes $1.9 bil­lion to set­tle fed­er­al dam­age claims and to reha­bil­i­tate the dete­ri­o­rat­ing Flat­head Indi­an Irri­ga­tion Project, which sup­plies irri­ga­tion to approx­i­mate­ly 127,000 acres of agri­cul­tur­al land. 

The tribes, in return, would relin­quish the bulk of their off-reser­va­tion water right claims and be pro­hib­it­ed from sell­ing water out of state.

Restor­ing the Bison Range to fed­er­al trust own­er­ship for the tribes is an ele­gant solu­tion that would cor­rect the his­toric injus­tice of the Unit­ed States tak­ing the Bison Range from the tribes’ treaty-reserved home­land with­out trib­al con­sent,” CSKT Trib­al Chair­man Ron Tra­han said in a state­ment pro­vid­ed to MTFP. It would also save tax­pay­er dol­lars and allow the Tribes’ award-win­ning Nat­ur­al Resources Depart­ment to man­age the land and wildlife as part of the exten­sive net­work of trib­al con­ser­va­tion lands that sur­round the Bison Range. It would mark a return to mak­ing things whole again.”

Daines and the tribes tout­ed the fact that the leg­is­la­tion also pro­tects pub­lic access to the Bison Range. Under cur­rent fed­er­al man­age­ment, there’s no law that requires pub­lic access. Under the pro­posed bill, pub­lic access would be enshrined in statute. 

Daines also says the leg­is­la­tion will save tax­pay­ers $1 to $2 mil­lion dol­lars per year in man­age­ment costs, in addi­tion to $400 mil­lion the set­tle­ment would save tax­pay­ers over a pre­vi­ous proposal. 

The $1.9 bil­lion pay­ment to the tribes to restore and improve water sys­tems is $400 mil­lion less than a pre­vi­ous pro­pos­al spon­sored by Montana’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic sen­a­tor, Jon Tester. Tester, a long­time sup­port­er of the CSKT com­pact, said in an inter­view on Dec. 10 that he sup­ports the com­pro­mise Daines reached with the tribes, and that he intends to co-spon­sor the bill once it is introduced. 

I will do any­thing I need to do to get this thing across the fin­ish line,” Tester said. It has to pass. If you take a look at the com­pact, it impacts about two-thirds of the state of Mon­tana. I don’t think the water users want to end up in court.”

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