It may have been the first attempt to save the wild bison. In the 1870s, Little Falcon Robe of the Pend d’Oreille tribe in Montana, traveled east on a hunting trip, and at the tribal council’s request brought live bison home to the Flathead valley.
The plains were once home to up to 30 million bison, but settlers traveling westward had nearly exterminated those vast herds. Little Falcon Robe brought back six calves, the story goes, which then multiplied to a few hundred that roamed the valley near the Flathead Lake and River.
Little Falcon Robe’s father first dreamed of bringing back the bison. "In his visions he saw that the bison was becoming less and less,” Tom McDonald, manager of a wildlife division of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe which includes the Pend d’Oreille, told BuzzFeed News. “A substantial herd was growing on the reservation about the late 1890s.”
More than a century later, the Flathead Reservation is home to the Salish and Kootenai, and the 18,800-acre National Bison Range, one the last refuges for bison in North America.
Since 2004 the US Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with the tribes to maintain the range, carved out of the reservation in 1908. Last year, the agency proposed restoring the bison range to the reservation, and turning over management exclusively to the tribes.
“This is potentially a really beautiful example of a tribe that is taking over a federal function that it is better situated than the federal government to run,” Kevin Washburn, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, who was Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior until 2015.
Tribes typically face an uphill battle trying to claim reservation land that is taken over by the US government. So the offer from the Fish and Wildlife Service was significant. “The tribes were pleasantly surprised by the idea,” Brian Upton, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' attorney, told BuzzFeed News.
But one group of retired range managers is seeking to block such a shift. In a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they claim that such a transfer violates federal law.
The tribe believes the group is motivated by prejudice, McDonald said.
Like many tribes across the US, the Salish and Kootenai have begun managing their own land and services on the Flathead Reservation. Though road-building, health, and education were historically administered through US agencies, a legacy from when tribes first began living on reservations, legislation like the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act empowered tribes to take over these federal functions.
That's why the shift that the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed made sense in many ways: The tribe had been asking to partner on range management since 1994. Thriving bison had become less of a priority for an agency that focused on endangered species. For the tribes however, bison occupy a sacred place in tribal culture and history.
“If you truly want to restore bison, who better to manage and tell their story than the people who have depended on them for hundreds of years?” McDonald, manager of Salish and Kootenai Division of Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation, said.
Tribal leaders began drawing up draft legislation to begin the process of land transfer in February last year. They also began pitching local Congressmen, including Department of Interior Ryan Zinke, who was Montana’s representative at the time.
The rangers sued in May. Led by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the suit claimed that the agency had not conducted an environmental review or drafted a bison conservation plan, as federal law requires.
“It has to have full public review,” PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein, told BuzzFeed News.
PEER also challenged the agency’s legal ability to restore the land to trust status. “You can’t give anyone else control of what’s an inherently federal function,” Dinerstein said.
The Association of Retired Fish and Wildlife Service Employees backed PEER up. In a letter to agency director Dan Ashe, the association board chair said that such a move would be a “slippery-slope” giving away land to states or companies wholesale, and set a bad precedent.
But other conservation groups, ones who generally oppose ceding any public land to companies, states, or tribes, defend the proposal to involve the Salish and Kootenai.
“Without a doubt, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are strongly committed to bison conservation and have obviously a deep rich history and connection with bison,” Matt Skoglund of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who works with the 5,000-strong bison herd in Yellowstone National Park, told BuzzFeed News.
The Salish and Kootenai are partners of the Interagency Bison Management Plan conservation effort, and members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a continent-wide effort to return bison to indigenous lands.
In the lawsuit, some rangers claimed that transferring management to the tribes would rob the public of their ability to visit the range. However Keith Aune, director of the Bison Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society, dismissed that claim: “I don’t believe that’s true,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Aune said that the tribe is better positioned than the federal government to serve as stewards of the America's national mammal: “It might be a richer connection to the public because they can share their cultural stories and they can explain from their world view why they value these animals,” he said.
Officials from the tribe say that historic prejudice about Indians’ abilities and independence is among the group's problems.
“Here on the reservation we’ve always faced some amount of racism, that Indians are incompetent and they shouldn’t be allowed to do something like this,” McDonald said.
Tribal attorney Upton was more pointed. “When it comes to the National Bison Range, PEER’s perspective has always been skewed with an anti-tribal bias,” Upton told BuzzFeed News.
Washburn, of the University of New Mexico, agreed that there has always been an “ideological opposition to tribal sovereignty.”
Perhaps responding to the lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intent in January to create a conservation plan for the refuge. (Because of pending litigation, the agency declined to comment for this story.)
PEER is betting that the Trump administration’s change of leadership at the agency will stall plans for any major shifts at the National Bison Range.
The idea that a local group will better manage its land than federal offices in Washington DC might be more consistent with the Secretary Zinke’s testimony during his nomination hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But when the one-time Montana representative returned to his home state in March, and met employees during a visit to the National Bison Range, the issue of transfer was not on the agenda.
The tribes, meanwhile, are waiting to see which way their former Congressman goes. In the next few months, they hope to restart petitioning state legislators to win the bison back.
“What better than a tribe like this, the Salish and Kootenai of Montana to do it, than some federal agency?” McDonald said.