Mont. tribe confident bison range talks will succeed
Thursday, October 9, 2003

Officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana presented a united front on Wednesday over the management of the National Bison Range.

Chairman D. Fred Matt confirmed that the tribe and the Bush administration continue to meet on a bi-weekly basis. Both sides are taking a "first look" at documents that have been prepared in hopes of taking the next step, he said.

"We're going to go back and compare where we are as far as a final agreement," Matt said in an interview.

Although the original timeline has slipped, Anna Whiting Sorrell, the tribe's director of support services, was confident an arrangement could be made by next July. "The Department of Interior has been very supportive" in helping address some of the issues that have been raised, she said.

"It still can happen," added Matt.

Matt and Sorrell were in Washington, D.C., yesterday to present testimony to the House Resources Committee. As one of the first tribes to enter into self-governance agreements with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they highlighted the successes they have achieved in taking over programs formerly managed by the government.

So it's only logical, they said, that the tribe would manage 18,000-acre bison range, to which they have close cultural and legal ties. The range is located entirely within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation and is home to bison descended from a herd originally raised by two tribal members.

"This is not privatization," Sorrell noted. "We are a government and we will be monitored and evaluated as a part of the government-to-government relationship. There will be clear federal oversight retained."

The tribe's reputation as a manager and provider of services is unparalleled, said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) at the hearing. He called the Salish and Kootenai's multi-million dollar enterprises "second to none."

But the range proposal has drawn considerable controversy. Local groups fear the tribe will exclude non-Indians while national organizations worry the move will set a precedent since self-determination and self-governance agreements have been limited to the BIA and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

The local opposition does not surprise the tribe. "Some of the comments that are coming out are just racist in nature," said Sorrell. "We are hopeful we'll able to work through and be able distinguish between what is [said] about our competency and our ability to do what is authorized by Congress, and what is just attitudes about Native American people."

The attention by groups like the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Republicans for Environmental Protection was not expected though. "I never thought it would go national," Matt observed. "I think that comes with some of the fears that some of the parties [harbor]. They've very knowledgeable on how to get the attention. They've been lobbying . . . to get their opinions and support."

There is also resistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nation's refuge system. In remarks published by The Missoulian on Tuesday, a regional official suggested self-governance should only apply to the BIA. "We are not providing services solely for tribal members," Rick Coleman told the paper. "Our functions are for the benefit of the broader American public."

Matt understands why agency official have concerns. "It's new to them. So they're reluctant or cautious in how they approach it," he said. "They want it to be right too."

Under 1994 amendments to the Indian Self-Determination Act, tribes can enter into agreements to manage national parks and wildlife refuges to which they have cultural, legal and historical connections. The Clinton and Bush administrations have published a list of eligible entities in the Federal Register every year. So far, no agreements of this type have been executed.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes want what is known as an "annual funding agreement." The terms of the agreement depend on what functions will stay with the federal government and what the tribal government will be able to manage.

If the AFA is reached by next July, the public will have 90 days to comment. Then it will be sent to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee for another 90 days of review. The committees can review, change or reject the agreement.

Relevant Links:
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes -
National Bison Range -
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -

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Talks on tribal takeover of bison range continue (09/08)
New York Times: Tribes can manage bison range (9/3)
Opposition attacks tribal takeover of bison range (9/2)
Tribal agreement on bison range not ready yet (08/04)
Report: Don't let tribes manage bison range (07/17)
Tribal takeover of bison range draws attention (07/08)
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