Home on the (Bison) Range

The time has come….
     Lewis Carol, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

In these articles I've occasionally mentioned visiting the National Bison Range, a U.S. National Wildlife Refuge located in Moise, Montana. In April, 2016, I wrote about photographing arrow-leaf balsam-root flowers there during a spring visit. It's a lovely refuge, nearly 19,000 acres of rolling palouse-like landscape filled with wildlife and wild flowers, and with a loop drive providing visual access to much of the area. Photo opportunities abound; the loop road is open, weather permitting, from May into late October, and in winter a seven-mile (eleven km) two-way drive is maintained for visitors. It's only thirty-five miles (fifty-six km) from home, so we visit several times every year.

The loop road climbs to over 4,200 feet (1.3 km) and provides expansive views to the east of the Mission Valley and Mountain Range, and of the Flathead River valley to the south and west. There's a large picnic area with tables, shelters, and vault toilets, a visitors center with natural history displays, a small theater, and a knowledgeable and helpful staff, and staff-led walks through wildflower areas and bird habitat. There are programs for local school students, and other programs and tours available to the general public. The admission fee is next to nothing, and an American the Beautiful annual national parks pass (the best deal you'll ever find from the U.S. government) will get you in for free.

A Little History, and a Surprise

Yellow-headed blackbird in a marsh in the Bison Range, Montana, U.S.

Yellow-headed blackbird in a marsh in the Bison Range.

The Bison Range is located within Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation, home of the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people, collectively called the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). The history of the tribes is long; the story of the reservation, its creation, and the opening of the reservation to white settlers is also long, interesting, and complicated. Details are beyond the scope of this article, but your favorite Web search site will lead you to more information. Be careful, as it's an absorbing story; studying this has become a passion, even an obsession, for more than a few people.

Pat and I have, as of June, 2016, lived in this valley, on the reservation, for nearly thirteen years. More than once during that time, attempts have been made to have the CSKT share, with the US FWS, in the management of the Bison Range. These efforts have been unsuccessful for various reasons, most of them outside the control of the tribes. This is rural country; as is true for much of rural America, attitudes are generally quite conservative. Change does not come easy, and the tendency is to jump to the conclusion that some right, perceived or real, is being infringed upon or taken away. Rhetoric gets noisy and meaningless very quickly. Letters to local newspapers meander around the the truth (or fabricate alternate realities) and do little but prove the writers have minimal grasp of the facts. Cries of “taking our land” mount. Interestingly, when Theodore Roosevelt created the range in 1908, the land was taken from the tribes without their consent. Just who's land is it, anyway?

It was quite a surprise, then, when in February, 2016, the US FWS announced it had entered into talks with the CSKT to hand over control of the Bison Range. A 13 February article in the Missoulian provides a good summary (and saves me a lot of typing). Put on your fireproof underwear before wading through the comments following that article. You can see how quickly the discourse devolves into rubbish based entirely on FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Many of these people clearly felt no need to engage their brain before blasting out ridiculous commentary via the 'Net.

Please visit the Bison Range Working Group's site, where you'll find a brief FAQ and a draft of the legislative language (it's only a few pages long and quite worth your time). If you'd like to have your opinion on record you can leave a comment at the site.

In The News

There's been much more in the press, as you'd imagine. Below are several links to what I think are fair and insightful articles and responses to issues raised so far. As mentioned above, you'll find slogging through the comments following each posting a challenge. That's unfortunate, as there are, scattered throughout the numbskullery, some thoughtful and reasoned comments.

The Right Thing To Do

Bison cow resting on a high ridge in the National Bison Range

What the Bison Range is all about, or should be.

Pat and I are directors on the board of the Mission Mountain chapter of the Montana Audubon Society (itself a part of the National Audubon Society). The president of our chapter has written a letter to the Bison Range Working Group indicating the chapter's support for the transfer. Pat and I support the return of the range to the tribes, just as we have on previous similar attempts. I know the fight's barely begun, that there will be the usual opposition from the usual sources, and in twenty-five years we'll look back and wonder what the fuss was about. As usual.

As with past attempts, this remains, in our opinion, the right thing to do. When it eventually comes to pass, I hope the tribes will be mindful of current employees, tribal and otherwise, and will address some of the more obvious issues facing the range, not the least of which is the noxious weed problem. I hope also that public access, while guaranteed, remains much as it is, i.e.: that admission is inexpensive, perhaps covered by tribal recreation permit or even (as it is now) a National Parks pass. I also hope year-round access remains as it is today. As always, we'll see. The path to resolution will be an interesting one.

June 2016

Full disclosure: I have done, and hope to continue to do business with the CSKT. I've done a number of photo printing jobs, large and small, for various departments within tribal government. I've donated my photographs to fund-raising auctions and have volunteered time in a photography classroom. This article has not been vetted by the tribes; no tribal member, employee, committee, department, or affiliate was made aware of this article prior to its posting here. Unless otherwise noted, opinions expressed are mine alone.