Secretary Zinke’s Statement:
“I took a hard look at the current proposal suggesting a new direction for the National Bison Range and assessed what this would mean for Montana and the nation. As Secretary, my job is to look 100 years forward at all of Interior’s resources. I recognize the Bison Range is a critical part of our past, present, and future, which is why I have changed course.
“I have said I will not sell or transfer public land. I remain steadfast in that commitment, which reflects my decision today. That said, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward. We can do a far better job expanding access and informing the public about the National Bison Range. CSKT will be instrumental in helping make this significant place a true reflection of our cultural heritage.”
The National Bison Range (NBR) was established on May 23, 1908, when President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation authorizing funds to purchase suitable land for the conservation of bison. The overall mission of the 18,800-acre NBR is to maintain a representative herd of bison to ensure the preservation of the species for continued public enjoyment. The NBR is one of the last intact publicly-owned intermountain native grasslands in the United States. NBR is located completely within the boundary of the Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
Twenty years of negotiation for an Annual Funding Agreement (AFA) with CSKT was met with mixed success due to litigation, personnel management issues, and differences in expectations regarding how the agreement should be crafted. In January of 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) informed the Tribe that due to issues with AFA negotiations, they were changing the preferred path forward, instead supporting a legislative transfer of the NBR. In June of 2016, CSKT released draft legislation that would transfer management of NBR from the FWS to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to be held in trust for the CSKT. FWS supplied technical drafting assistance to Senator Jon Tester on the initial idea of a legislative transfer, but did not formally offer comment or directly engage on the bill crafted by CSKT.
No action was taken by Congress during 2016 on this matter. Then, a Notice of Intent (NOI) was placed in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017 announcing FWS’s development of a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) for the management of NBR began a scoping and engagement process with partners and the public. The CSKT will be invited to participate in the CCP development process. Included in the NOI was a preferred alternative that would transfer the NBR to BIA legislatively. The comment period for the NOI closed on February 17, 2017. According to initial review from FWS, a majority of the comments were from Montanans, and a majority of said comments were against the preferred alternative.