In November 2019, on a chilly blustery day atop Ravalli Hill, United States Attorney General Bill Barr peered through a hunting scope looking westward in search of bison on the east slopes of the National Bison Range. They were nowhere in sight.
Barr was on the Flathead Indian Reservation to unveil the federal government’s national plan to address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
On a side trip prior to meeting with the Tribal Council and people involved with the MMIP issue, Barr and entourage motored to Ravalli Hill. There, he met with representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that included Legal Department attorneys and Tribal Council members.
The reason for the Ravalli Hill side trip was for the CSKT representatives to push their case for the CSKT management of 18,500-acre National Bison Range and put the NBR acreage into federal trust status. The NBR lies in the heart of the Flathead Indian Reservation — it was established in 1908 against the will of the Flathead Nation.
Barr said he didn’t see any reason why that shouldn’t happen.
It was something the Flathead Nation had been trying to do since the mid-1990s. The effort had much opposition but did have spurts of success and doses of disappointments.
The CSKT did negotiate an annual funding agreement (AFA) to co-manage the NBR in 2005-06 but that was scuttled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as result of political backlash and acrimony between the entities. A second CSKT-FWS co-management AFA in 2009-10 ended when a federal judge ruled against the AFA because an environmental assessment hadn't been conducted.
In early 2016 the USFWS said it would support legislation to transfer the NBR to the CSKT. In a letter to USFWS employees at that time, Mountain-Prairie Region Director Noreen Walsh informed FWS employees of the decision.
“In an effort to achieve the best, long-term solution for our many conservation priorities, the specific conservation goals of the National Bison Range, and to support the principles of Indian self-determination there was a discussion today with the CSKT about the potential for the Service to support legislation that would transfer the lands comprising the National Bison Range to be held in trust by the United States for the CSKT,” Walsh stated in letter.
However, in the spring of 2017, then-Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke put the skids to that effort citing his preference to not sell or transfer federal lands.
Then came the resolution of the decades-long negotiation of Flathead Nation’s Federal Reserved Water Rights Compact. The Montana Water Rights Protection Act, co-sponsored by Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), included the transfer of management of the NBR from the USFWS to the CSKT. It had the backing of the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Interior and the Trump administration.
In December 2020, the MWRPA was passed and transfer of National Bison Range management came under the exclusive management of the Flathead Nation, and placed the 18,500 acres under federal trust status.
The official transfer was announced January 15, when Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt signed Secretary's Order 3390 that transfers the NBR acreage to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that will restore the land as part of the Flathead Reservation.
It culminated a more than century long political and spiritual journey for the Flathead Nation, and was welcomed.
“The restoration of this land is a great historic event and we worked hard to reach this point. This comes after a century of being separated from the buffalo and the Bison Range, and after a quarter-century-long effort to co-manage the refuge with the FWS,” said Flathead Nation Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant. “And who better to do it than the original inhabitants of the land who depended on the buffalo for centuries? That was our mainstay.”