National Bison Range Returns To Indigenous Management

12:17 minutes

a herd of bison and in the background are snowcapped mountains
Bison on the National Bison Range in Montana. Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Listen to an audio documentary about the North American bison of the Flathead Reservation from Threshold.

Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. They were an essential resource and cultural foundation for many Native American tribes. And by 1890, European colonists had hunted them nearly to extinction. 

When President Theodore Roosevelt moved to conserve the remaining bison in 1908, he established the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre reserve that the government took directly from the tribes of the Flathead Reservation—the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille. The tribes were not invited to help manage the recovery of a bison herd that they had helped save. At times, they were even excluded from the land entirely. For the past several decades, the tribes have been lobbying for the land—and management of its several hundred bison—to be returned.

a wooden sign that reads national bison range with an outline illustration of a bison. the sign is in the middle of a mountainous landscape
Credit: Amy Martin

Then, in December 2020, Congress included in its COVID-19 relief package an unrelated bill with bipartisan approval: returning that land to the tribes. 

Ira talks to Montana journalist Amy Martin, who has been covering the National Bison Range for Threshold, a podcast about environmental change, about why the return of the land is meaningful in the context of U.S. colonization, and the relationship between the environment and justice. Listen to the full report on the National Bison Range on Threshold

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Segment Guests

Amy Martin

Amy Martin is a journalist and executive producer of the podcast Threshold, based in Missoula, Montana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last December, Congress passed a bill to offer relief for people economically hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. But that wasn’t all that was in there. Among many things unrelated to the pandemic was a provision to return something called the National Bison Range, return it to the surrounding indigenous community, the Confederate Salish and the Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation in western Montana. Here’s the background.

After European settlers hunted the bison almost to extinction, President Teddy Roosevelt paved the way to set aside land, where one of the last remaining herds could recover in peace. That’s the National Bison Range. And those bison are now part of what has become a resounding success story for conservation. And this provision returning the bison range to the indigenous people? Well, if you don’t live in Montana, you may have no idea how big a deal that really is.

Here to help is journalist Amy Martin. She’s executive producer and founder of the podcast, Threshold, which tells stories behind environmental change. And she has done extensive podcasting on the history of bison in the US. Welcome, Amy.

AMY MARTIN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So the tribes have been asking for control and return of the land for a long time. How did the members of the Flathead Reservation feel, now that they have it back?

AMY MARTIN: Well, the people that I’ve had a chance to speak to are really, really excited about this. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have been pushing to get control of the bison range back since the early ’70s. This land was taken without their consent way back in 1908. This has been a long time coming.

And one person I spoke to, Rich Jansen– he’s the head of the Natural Resources Department for the tribes– he grew up on the reservation, and he didn’t even know that the bison range was there. He never went to it. It’s this kind of strange island in the middle of the reservation, where people who live there didn’t feel welcome. And I asked him how it felt to go back onto the bison range, and here’s what he had to say.

RICH JANSEN: It felt really different to go onto the bison range and say, this is now tribal land once again. To be able to say to my friends and tribal members this is yours again, and do not feel ashamed to come here, do not feel threatened when you come here. This is yours. Take care of it.

IRA FLATOW: So they really are very excited, Amy, about getting their land back.

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, I mean, it’s the land and it’s the bison themselves. Because this bison herd, these are the descendants of animals that tribal people themselves helped to preserve way back in the end of the 1800s, beginning of the 1900s. The Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes who lived there helped to preserve these animals.

And then there was this strange irony when white conservationists realized that settlers had almost wiped out bison. They were like, wait, wait, wait, we need to save this animal. Here’s a good herd. Here’s some land where they like to be. And they just kind of took control of the whole process. And native people were written out of the story at that point.

So I think it just means so much to have control of the land back and to have the authority to manage this herd, which is so central to Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille people, but also native people all over the country.

IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Talk more a bit about why the tribes felt it so important for them to be part of that process. Why wasn’t it enough that the bison were being protected?

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think, of course, it was important to have the bison protected at all, to everybody who cares about these animals and their future. But I think maybe many Americans don’t realize that there actually used to be bison from coast to coast and from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. So tribes all over the country had different kinds of relationships with the bison. Bison were a food source. Their hides provided shelter. And there’s a special relationship there that goes into sustenance of the community and also the cultural heart of the community.

I spoke with a woman several years ago. Her name is Germaine White. And at that time, she was information and education specialist with the tribes. She’s a noted wise person within the tribes. And she told me that it was really almost impossible to overstate the importance of bison to her community.

GERMAINE WHITE: Bison were at the very heart of our traditional way of life. For years, we hunted bison, lived in relationship with bison, and they provided for not just our material needs, our shelter, our clothing, our food, but also our spiritual needs as well. The elders never imagined that there would be a time that there were not bison here for us.

AMY MARTIN: One of the things that was very clear, as I talked to different tribal members in the area, is that this conservation project, although they supported the goals of conserving the bison, it was undergone without any consultation or consent from the local people. That’s what makes this story so interesting and important for us to think about as Americans right now.

Sometimes, in our pursuit of conservation goals and conservation justice, there has been a real lack of thinking about social justice. Teddy Roosevelt and people who came after him were very proud to have preserved the bison, as they should have been, but there was no acknowledgment that that preservation often came at the expense of completely writing native people out of the story, and worse, truly subjugating them and treating them as if they weren’t fully human.

And I think that that’s what so many people are demanding right now in the United States and around the world, that as we tackle environmental issues, we also need to be thinking about social justice issues. And there really is no solving one of those issues without the other. They are, in fact, the same thing.

Robert McDonald, who’s the communications director for the tribes, he told me that the fact that the tribes were not consulted when the bison range was created, has left a real wound and a scar among people who live on the reservation all of this time.

ROBERT MCDONALD: Keep in mind, at this point in time, we were not considered US citizens. We had no voice politically. We did voice our concerns loudly, and it’s been documented and recorded. And there was no obligation for them to listen to us. So they told us, move, get out of the way. This is what this is going to be. And we had no choice but to follow along.

IRA FLATOW: So those members of the tribe still have intense feelings about this lack of power many years later.

AMY MARTIN: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, this is just one of the places, obviously, where that lack of power shows up. And it’s also, I think, what makes the fact that these lands and the herd itself has been returned to their authority feel so powerful. It’s the land and the animals themselves, but it’s also the symbolism behind it, the meaning behind it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, of course, central to this issue is also a concern about the welfare of the bison. The tribes have a lot of experience managing wildlife in their environment, don’t they?

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes are really nationally recognized conservation leaders. They were the first tribe in the nation to designate their own wilderness area– for instance, the Mission Mountain Wilderness Area. They’ve done all kinds of innovative things for wildlife on the reservation. They’ve built highway overpasses that allow animals to migrate freely without risking being hit on the highways. And Rich Jansen, who we heard from earlier, the head of the Natural Resources Department, he has been a really big part of that story.

RICH JANSEN: We essentially manage the entire reservation for wildlife. We manage the black bear population and the white-tailed deer, the mule deer, the moose, the elk. Grizzly bear conservation area– beautiful grizzly bears and one of the largest populations in the lower 48. And that’s right in our backyard. So we most definitely are qualified to manage the National Bison Range.

IRA FLATOW: With all that experience and with everybody knowing how well that they manage the wildlife, why did it take this long? Everything you’re saying, everything he’s saying so far makes a lot of sense that the people who know the most about an animal should be managing its well-being.

AMY MARTIN: Yeah, well, unfortunately, racism is a really strong force in our country, and it’s a strong force in Montana. And there are a lot of very toxic narratives about Native Americans and indigenous people and their capabilities and their rights and so forth. It wasn’t that long ago, it was in the ’70s that you could walk in– I’ve heard this– that you could walk into a bar in Montana and see signs that said, “No dogs, no Indians.” There’s a real ongoing struggle there to have a multicultural society that is truly fair and just for everyone.

So that’s part of it. There’s been pushback from people acknowledged on racial grounds or kind of woven into other stories that people told themselves. I think maybe a less clear cut opposition to it is a concern that if these lands were returned to the CSKT, would that mean that other tribal lands or other lands that– well, basically, all land was once tribal land– if that would open the floodgates that a whole bunch of other tribes would be able to say, we want our land back, too. That’s a complicated thing that’s going to be playing out, I think, over the next several years or decades.

I do think, though, that this case is special in many ways, because this land was designated by the federal government as tribal land. And then this piece of it was carved out, and it’s completely surrounded by the reservation on all sides. And there really aren’t very many cases like that that are so egregious, where the government said, OK, you can have this land– oh, except for this piece that we want back. The forces of inertia, the forces of racism, and some complicated bureaucratic stuff, but they pushed through all of that, and now the land is back in tribal hands.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so let’s talk about when the transfer takes place and how will all this actually work.

AMY MARTIN: Well, what’s amazing is that when the appropriations bill was signed on December 27th of 2020, the land was back in their hands. There is a two-year process for transferring the management over from the Fish and Wildlife Service. That is already underway. And there are tribal members who have been working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who are working at the bison range. So I think it sounds like there’s going to be a smooth transfer there between the two organizations.

And at this point, they’re in really great communication. Everybody’s wanting the same thing. The things that I have been hearing from people is, we knew this was going to happen someday. It’s been this long, long fight. And we just had to absolutely not give up. And Robert McDonald, the communications director, was one of the people who really communicated this long-term view of this fight.

ROBERT MCDONALD: There was an effort to destroy the native. It became an effort to destroy their lands. It became an effort to destroy any vestige of the language and culture. And yet, we’re still here.

It’s pretty incredible the survival story you’re looking at, that somehow, through all of this, and we hear the stories of our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, of, frankly, being right at the brink of not making it. But yet, somehow, we’re here, and we’re growing. And we’re getting stronger. We’re getting smarter. Well, I don’t know if we’re getting smarter, but we’re learning new tools.

IRA FLATOW: Those are pretty powerful statements. And for us listening to it– I hate to say it– it’s such a cliche, but it’s sort of like a heartwarming story because it’s something positive about inclusiveness that we haven’t heard in a long time.

AMY MARTIN: This bill had bipartisan support from the Montana delegation. Republicans and Democrats supported the return of these lands to the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes. That’s something else we don’t hear of all that often these days, so.

IRA FLATOW: Good news. Thank you, Amy. We can use all of that we can get. Amy Martin, journalist and executive producer of Threshold, a podcast about environmental change. And you can find a link to her full story about the National Bison Range up on our website, ScienceFriday.com/bison.

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