The bison that roam the rough prairie of the National Bison Range are said to be descended from calves that followed an American Indian home from a hunt more than a century ago.
That is the story told to visitors, and that is the reason the Salish and Kootenai Indian tribes say they should be the ones to manage the range, the only federal wildlife refuge set aside to protect the bison, or American buffalo.
The Indians are negotiating a first-of-its-kind agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that some fear could set a dangerous precedent by putting national lands in private hands.
"Those bison come from a herd that was from us — and that story is even told at the bison range visitor center," said Anna Whiting Sorrell of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of northwestern Montana.
The 19,000-acre bison range, visited by about 250,000 people each year, sits entirely within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation. For $4, visitors can drive a winding, narrow dirt road through the range to watch bison grazing or see the birds, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope that also live there.
Federal workers staff the visitor center, monitor the health of the herd and rotate the grazing animals to keep the prairie healthy.
A deal to turn over management to the Indians would be the first agreement of its kind under a 1994 law that allows tribes to apply to run federal refuges if the tribe has cultural, geographic or historic links to the land.
Even if the tribes took over the bison refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Service would continue to own the land, keep a refuge manager on site and be responsible for the range's "inherently federal functions."
Much of the controversy and the negotiations center on what, exactly, those functions are. Neither side will discuss details of the talks.
Opponents fear the move could be a first step toward similar changes at other refuges and perhaps national parks.
"This has nothing to do with Native American versus other kinds of American," said Susan Campbell Reneau of Missoula, who has written 19 books on wildlife and conservation. "The issue is, do we want our national lands that belong to everyone privatized and localized?"
But Interior Department spokesman Hugh Vickery dismissed such fears. "There's been no movement to turn over the refuge system," he said, and the negotiations are required by law when a tribe requests them.
The bison range was created in 1908 when the federal government bought the Indian land to protect the buffalo, which had been nearly wiped out. The range now has a budget of $1.7 million and 18 full-time workers.
The tribes want to manage only the parts that lie within reservation boundaries — the bison range and two small areas of protected waterfowl habitat. The tribes say they would be paid the same amount that the government now spends to operate the range and the two refuges.
Whiting Sorrell said management of the refuge would have to be approved, reviewed and monitored by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Somehow there's this impression that the doors will be closed to the bison range, that the American public won't be able to access it any longer," tribal chairman Fred Matt said. "That's clearly not the case."
Likewise, he said, concerns that jobs will be cut are unfounded, though the tribes will work to boost Indian employment there.
To build public support, the tribe has launched a campaign called Join the Herd and sent out 50,000 newspaper inserts or newsletters laying out its case.
The tribes previously worked with the wildlife service to reintroduce peregrine falcons and trumpeter swans to the reservation. David Wiseman, manager of the bison refuge, credited the tribes' work on environmental issues, saying, "There's probably no better record out there."
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