Secretary Zinke won't return land taken from Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Bison in the National Bison Range in Montana. Photo: Keith Ewing

The new leader of the Department of the Interior has halted plans to return the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The range is located entirely within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The herd descends from animals that were raised and donated by tribal citizens.

Despite the history, Secretary Ryan Zinke described the range as "public land." In a statement, he reiterated his position against the sale or transfer of such lands.

“I have said I will not sell or transfer public land. I remain steadfast in that commitment, which reflects my decision today," ZInke said in the April 13 statement. “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 tribe has sought greater control over operations at the range. But opposition from federal employees and outside groups, particularly Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, hindered a self-governance compact and funding agreement for the facility.

After lengthy discussions, the Bison Range Working Group started developing a legislative proposal to transfer the site from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The land would then be held in trust for the tribe, its original owner, but that option is now off the table.

“We understood that President Trump and Secretary Zinke himself had promised about not selling off public lands, but from my perspective, that isn’t what this is,” Chairman Vernon Finley told The Missoulian. “It’s more of a restoration of reservation land, which is different than selling public land.

President Donald Trump opposes the sale or transfer of public lands and Zinke's position was said to have been a strong factor in his selection as the leader of Interior.

Read More on the Story:
Zinke halts plan to transfer National Bison Range to tribal control (The Missoulian 4/12)
Interior Secretary Halts Bison Range Transfer Proposal (Montana Public Radio 4/12)
Interior Halts Transfer of Bison Range to Tribes (Courthouse News 4/13)
National Bison Range: Popular, poor and again rudderless (The Missoulian 4/15)
U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke halts transfer of Montana Bison Range to tribes (AP 4/15)

An Opinion:
Editorial: Zinke fogs future of bison range (The Missoulian 4/16)

Federal Register Notice:
National Bison Range Complex, Moiese, MT; Environmental Assessment for the Proposed Annual Funding Agreement With the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (August 5, 2014)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Vernon Finley: Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes seek return of National Bison Range (08/15)