GUEST EDITORIAL: Bison Range needs comprehensive conservation plan

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should follow up on his baffling announcement last week concerning “changing course” on the National Bison Range with some actual leadership on this critical issue.

That means he will need to explain exactly what his opposition is to the plan to transfer management of the range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and explain what actions he is taking to stop the proposal that is currently wending its way through the federal system.

Most of all, Zinke will need to articulate to Montanans and especially to members of the tribe whose lands completely surround the range, in meaningful detail, what steps he will be taking to ensure the Department of Interior takes better care of the National Bison Range because right now, his agency is failing on that count. 

The National Bison Range covers 18,500 acres within the heart of the Flathead Reservation, and offers the public the unparalleled opportunity to witness wild bison roam one of the most beautiful landscapes in the state. The bison range is actually part of a larger complex that includes four wildlife refuges and a wetland management district. In addition to open grasslands and aspen groves, countless species of native plants and animals call these acres home. 

But more than 200,000 visitors come from all over the world each year mainly to see the range’s primary attraction: a herd of more than 300 adult American bison, the largest mammal on the continent and the United States’ official national mammal.

The range was established more than 100 years ago when President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the land purchase to establish it. Essentially, the U.S. government “bought” land that was never for sale, and at a fraction of its value.

Of course, the history of the bison in this area goes back much, much farther, to the days when millions of these animals once roamed freely. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are among the many American Indian tribes whose history, traditions and culture are inextricably linked to bison.

The United States has too often failed to respect that link, choosing instead to repeatedly trample on the rights of Native peoples to manage these animals. While the CSKT has repeatedly sought to take a stronger hand in managing the bison range, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drug its feet, changed plans numerous times and ultimately left the range without the resources it needs to do right by both the bison, the people who live on the reservation and the American people, for whom the bison are held in trust.

That lack is evident in the maintenance backlog and unfilled positions at the National Bison Range. Earlier this year, the range’s managers put out an unprecedented call for volunteers to help officials prepare for the upcoming calving and tourist seasons. The range has several full-time staff positions open, some of which have been left open for almost five years. Tribal management of the range, on the other hand, is not unprecedented. For some 20 years, off and on, the CSKT and FWS shared management through funding agreements that were often challenged in court, with the most recent agreement pulled in 2010 by a federal judge. The ensuing years brought no further substantial action on the part of the federal government.

That is, until about a year ago, when FWS announced that it would support a legislative effort to transfer the range out of the National Wildlife Refuge system to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which would hold the range in trust for the CSKT and allow the tribes to assume management. The Interior Department oversees both FWS and the BIA.

Again: the proposal, which has been entered in the federal register but not yet introduced in Congress, would transfer the National Bison Range from one federal agency to another federal agency, within the same federal department. It would not mean selling or transferring public land out of federal ownership in any way.

So when Zinke says “I have said I will not sell or transfer public land” in the same statement in which he announces his decision not to support the range’s transfer to CSKT management, he is confusing two unrelated issues. Far from benefiting the range in any way, his statements last week darkened the clouds over its future.

President Trump’s proposed budget includes a 12 percent reduction for the Interior Department — a loss of $1.6 billion. Notwithstanding his donation of $78,333 from his presidential salary to the National Park Service, that leaves a lot of funding to make up for, and the bison range is already struggling.

How is Zinke going to provide the range with the money it needs to hire a sufficient number of staff? Without a plan for the tribes to assume management or even a shared management agreement, how will he ensure that the CSKT have a significant voice in future management decisions?

Without answers to these urgent questions, Zinke’s vague opposition to the draft legislation released by CSKT does nothing to help the bison range. 

The range is facing an uncertain future. It lacks adequate funding, is understaffed, and the continued rejection of tribal authority over land and wildlife in the heart of their own reservation is a national embarrassment.

For some still-unexplained reason, Zinke doesn’t like the solution that was proposed to fix these problems. So what is his solution?

Montanans, tribal members and the American public deserve more than platitudes and recycled campaign boilerplate. It’s time for Zinke to provide some definite answers, come up with substantial solutions - and show some real leadership.

— The Missoulian