Advocacy group opposes proposed deal to give tribes Bison Refuge

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[Editor’s Note: The Blue Goose Alliance, an advocacy group for National Wildlife Refuges in America, has written Montana U.S. Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester about the proposed Water Rights Protection Act.]

Dear Senators Daines and Tester, I adamantly object to your Montana Water Rights Protection Act Bill, S.3019, with provisions using public lands as trade to remove the National Bison Range (NBR) from the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS).

The Refuge System must be kept whole. Will all Wildlife Refuges, Migratory Bird Wetlands, National Parks, State Wildlife Management areas or other Public Lands in America, where eminent domain occurred, be “given” back to original owner?

The assault on the NBR, other National Wildlife Refuges and Public Lands must stop.

History quoted in your bill is incorrect.

Please consider the written history accepted by all, including Montana Historical Society and Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) until recent modifications and revisions put forth exclusively by CSKT and not challenged by your staff or whoever wrote language in the bill.

Historians of the NWRS/NBR would like to help you using first-hand published and well researched accounts.

Here are some items to consider. The real injustice to the CSKT people was the 1904 allotment acceleration act (using the 1887 General Allotment Act as a foundation Dawes Act), not the National Bison Range legislation.

By that Allotment Act the USA effectively broke a promise in the 1855 Hell Gate Treaty and ultimately sold a sizeable portion of the Reservation to non Indians, resulting in water rights disagreements you now attempt to adjudicate.

It was not until 4 years later in 1908 that the National Bison Range location was chosen, obviously in part to satisfy the directives in the NBR Congressional authorizing legislation to be in its current location. The selection effort was national and was deemed necessary to save the American Bison, now our national mammal, from extinction.

It was done to benefit all Americans. In reflection you might remember that the 1904 allotment act was a result of Montana politics, where Montanans, and other non-Indian Americans, were hungry for land and the Flathead Reservation offered high potential for farming and ranching agriculture.

By late May of 1908 it was clear that if Congress did not establish a Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation, at the location selected, then this land would be carved into homestead size parcels. Charles Allard and Michel Pablo had great success raising bison on the Flathead Reservation for 15+ years. This gave comfort to American Bison Society members that there was adequate water and grass such that bison would not need to be fed hay. Today all the land near NBR, opened to settlement, is divided into smaller parcels confirming that the 18,800-acre NBR would have been sliced in a similar fashion, unable to be used for wildlife conservation.

Conservation funding acquired the land. Professional conservationists enlarged the founding herd and managed the wildlife and the land for the past 111 years. The land and the bison have been saved by this effort for all Americans, including CSKT people.

In addition, the bison genetics of Allard’s herd, which were sold by his heirs in 1901-1902 to the Conrads are still intact. Allard’s sale was 2+ years before the Allotment Act. In 1909 ABS bought Conrad’s bison to stock NBR. Today U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rates these genetics the best on National Wildlife Refuges in the U.S. for conservation of the species.

For many years USFWS has expanded the NBR herd size, with a goal of 1,000, by using meta population management, whereby bison and their unique genetics are distributed at Refuges in Iowa, North Dakota, Colorado and Montana.

Beginning in 2016 the Wind River Indian Reservation, in Wyoming, under an arrangement with the USFWS to fully adhere to the demanding process for maintaining the meta population standards, has received bison from NWRS herds that originated from NBR animals.

Under meta population standards, a special team of USFWS biologists and geneticists oversee and select animals to be mixed between sites but any additions must pass rigorous genetic testing.

National philanthropy and Conservation Funds from taxpayers, appropriated by congress, continue to serve these very specific purposes. Those funds saved this land and these bison that are also important to CSKT.

Homesteaders paid for the land. However, a later Federal Indian Claims Court found that the manner in which the U.S. directed all payments to be used for Reservation infrastructure developments deprived the Tribes and members of “Just Compensation” as required by the Constitution.

That Court ordered significantly more paid to CSKT members in circa 1975. CSKT legally stipulated that second payment to be appropriate Just Compensation thereby meeting the Constitutional requirement.

Your bill appears to be using a national resource, (i.e. A National Wildlife Refuge and National Bison Herd) to pay a debt caused by the injustice of the 1904 Allotment Act which it did not cause.

If NBR had not been established when and where it was, we all would have been poorer but CSKT would have been most irreparably injured.

When the NBR was acquired, it was the first time the U.S. Congress appropriated funds to purchase an entire conservation land unit, specifically to protect wildlife.

The American Bison Society was formed in 1905. Its member list included President Theodore Roosevelt as Honorary President. The group was led by William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society.

The ABS was the first conservation organization in the USA to organize grassroots to lobby congress for wildlife, encourage philanthropy for wildlife and educate the nation on a wildlife crisis.

They raised $10,560 to purchase the bison because congress had refused to buy them. That’s why Pablo’s bison were sold in 1906 to Canada. ABS donations came from 29 states and included pennies from children.

Biology Professor at University of Montana, Morton Elrod, was commissioned to investigate several locations and recommend best site for a bison range in a report to ABS which was published and made available to Congress.

A Native leader on the Reservation, Duncan McDonald, accompanied him. Professor Elrod recommended the site we now have as a “National’ Bison Range.

Duncan McDonald told Elrod in 1907: “Every Indian will be glad if the Government can and will save them and keep them where they can be seen.”

Chief Charlo traveled to Washington D.C. in 1905 to object to opening the reservation to allotment and subsequently to homesteading and USA Public Land Laws. He did speak to President Roosevelt.

In 1907 when Charlo was convinced that he could not stop the opening he participated by selecting two of the five commissioners who would complete the task of allotting land to each Indian.

Sam Resurrection, a CSKT man went to Washington to complain of the opening. He was not an official CSKT representative. Thus, he wasn’t given access to decision makers but did make big news in Missoula. The Missoulian was full-throated in support of Reservation opening. The paper countered Sam with stories about his drinking habits.

The Missoulian was owned at the time by Montana Senator Dixon. Today non-Indian inholdings are nearly 40% of the Reservation acreage.

For 50 years USFWS has been an important partner to CSKT in wildlife and land management (bison, elk, pronghorn, swans, agriculture, law enforcement and funding).

In the 1970s 30+ bison were donated as well as technical assistance helping CSKT establish their own herd and helping build fences on their range However, partnership is not what they have demanded from USFWS or the USA, it is land.

Somehow during tough negotiations in recent months, you and your staff, have let CSKT define the USFWS, the National Wildlife Refuge System and NBR to fit their current effort to adjudicate water rights in Montana.

Adding NBR to S.3019 is a very bad idea, which, due to lack of compliance with provisions in the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act would undoubtedly establish an unacceptable precedent.

—William C. Reffalt is vice president and issues coordinator of the Blue Goose Alliance. Bill West is recently retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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