As the new stewards of the National Bison Range, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are looking to the future with a vision for continued conservation, bolstering the herd, improving the landscape and telling the story of why the bison and the land they live on is so important to their culture and history.
“Our vision is to continue to keep it as is, and maybe enhance the bison that we see there, as well as managing the other species that are there, predominantly rocky mountain elk,” said Rich Janssen, head of the CSKT Natural Resources Department, this week. He said they’re also looking to improve nutrition value of the vegetation on the land used for grazing. “We want to keep them doing what they’re doing, which is being wild animals.”
On the outside, the public will likely not notice any difference as the Tribes take over management, according to Rob McDonald, CSKT spokesperson.
“Everything’s operating as it was before,” he said. “In the legislation that was passed, the Bison Range will still be managed and operated under the same conservation plan it has been for years.”
While plans are preliminary, the Tribes hope to increase the number of bison on Red Sleep Mountain.
“We want to protect and enhance this majestic animal that is so dear to our tribes," Janssen said. "We’re going to continue to do that and will work really closely with the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service, as we are working with them on a transition plan.”
CSKT officials will spend the next two years working in conjunction with the federal employees currently managing the Bison Range to ensure a smooth transfer. Eventually, Red Sleep Mountain will be staffed by tribal members and managed by CSKT natural resources officials.
“We want to make sure we get the necessary qualified staff and the necessary qualified people to be able to fill that role at the Bison Range,” Janssen said.
In the future, they hope to establish more educational opportunities and resources to tell the story of the spiritual and cultural significance of the land and the bison.
“The majestic buffalo have always been a rich part of our history," Janssen said. "Any Tribal member will tell you that there’s a historical connection from the bison to our Tribes and to many Tribes throughout the northwest and throughout America. They’re in our stories. As we look at that moving forward, we want to provide an aspect of the story of this landscape and what it means to our tribes.”
Last week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt formally signed papers transferring the National Bison Range to the CSKT, ending a decades-long battle for management of one of their most significant cultural resources on their land.
“This is the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people going back decades," Janssen said. “It’s really righting the wrongs of 19,000 acres that were taken from our tribes without our consent and we got it back.”
The transfer was part of an omnibus spending bill signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, 2020. It was included as part of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act, co-sponsored by all three members of Montana’s congressional delegation: Sens. Jon Tester (D) and Steve Daines (R) and Rep. (now Gov.) Greg Gianforte (R).
Congress established the 18,800-acre Bison Range on the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1908, which the Tribes say was done without their consent. Over the years, CSKT won compensation for the land and have sought a role in managing it.
They've submitted three proposals since 1994. Over the last 25 years, they’ve received support, but also pushback from those who want the Bison Range to remain in federal hands.
The tribes say the resistance stems from deep-seated racism and mistrust about how they'll handle management.
But CSKT has a history of successful natural resources management, with more than 400,000 acres of land on the reservation protected for fish, wildlife or cultural use. The tribe has worked to restore the trumpeter swan, the northern leopard frog and the peregrine falcon, and has been active in the conservation of grizzly bears, bald eagles and bull trout on their land.
“We’ve got an award-winning wildlife program here with master’s-level biologists that have been working a long time. We are well-versed in managing elk and bison,” Janssen said.
CSKT also manages more than 1,000 head of elk in the Ferry Basin Elk Conservation area on a swath of land just northwest of the Bison Range.
Janssen, whose ancestors had an allotment that gave them a sweeping view of the Bison Range, said after such a long battle, many people who worked to bring management under tribal control are no longer around to see it come to fruition.
“There are so many people that have passed on that are a part of this,” he said. “There are so many individuals that are very happy today that this finally occurred and we get back what was taken without our consent. This is our Tribes' land once again.”
Missoulian interim editor Rob Chaney contributed to this story.