This post has been edited. The National Bison Range is nearly 19,000 acres, not 1,900 acres as originally posted.
More than 100 people packed into the theater at the Salish Kootenai College Tuesday night to hear about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ proposal to take over management of the National Bison Range from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and Wildlife supports transferring management.
The potential transfer of the 19,000 acre range has been contentious for decades. So the Tribes chose a slightly different format for their meeting, to explain their proposal and take public input on it.
Missoula-based moderator Virginia Tribe facilitated the meeting, kicking off with a round of introductions.
"The first thing I'd like you to do is turn to the person on your left and turn to the person on your right and introduce yourself if you need to," she said.
Instead of overseeing a typical Q-and-A, Tribe introduced two tribal attorneys, who briefly explained the nuts and bolts of the tribes’ proposal, which is draft federal legislation, and then dismissed the large group to the theater’s foyer.
There, tribal attorneys and wildlife officials were on hand to field questions one person at a time.
Past meetings have been heated, says Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley.
"Our intention was to try to get to real issues, real concerns, because the difficult part is when you're trying to filter out the blatant racist comments as opposed to those that actually have some substance to them and can actually be addressed in a real clear format, that was the real impetus for this type of setting," he said.
Most of the people at Tuesday’s meeting were there to clear up questions.
"I'd heard stories before, and maybe they're not accurate, but I just want to get it clarified," said Richard Hader of Kalispell.
Hader visits the range a few times a year, usually to see the calves. He drove down to learn what would change if the tribes took over management.
"I was thinking the tribe was involved as management before, and that might not be the case," he added.
That’s true - to a limited extent.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has managed the range since it was carved from the middle of the Flathead Reservation in 1908. In 2005, the Service hired on tribal members in several management positions, and from 2008 to 2010 the Tribes began co-managing the range’s biology, maintenance, fire and visitor service programs.
Both the Service and the Tribes consider these periods of co-management a success, and the Tribes have been lauded for their management of other wildlife species, like grizzly bears and elk. Earlier this year, Fish and Wildlife said it supports legislation that would hand over management.
Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. In February, a group that includes former bison range employees filed a lawsuit to block a transfer, which is still in draft form and has not yet been introduced to Congress.
At the meeting, people raised concerns about the Tribes instituting an entrance fee - they’ve said they won’t - how the Tribes will manage the herd - they’ve said they will continue the range’s purpose of conserving bison and wildlife - and whether the Tribes will continue current educational outreach programs at the range - they’ve said they will.
But just as many were there to show their support.
"It just fits," said Patty Stevens, tribal councilwoman. She showed up wearing a maroon t-shirt with the words, “restore the range, preserve the resource” circling the outline of a white buffalo. About thirty people wore the same shirt.
"It's about who we are as Indian people," she explained. "The bison is our medicine, like your arm is to your body. It's just the right thing to do, and I just look forward to it."
As the meeting wound down, tribal officials encouraged everyone to submit comments outlining what they like about the range, what they hope to see happen and what concerns they have over future management.
None of Montana’s representatives in Congress is taking a position on the proposed transfer at this time, but all are encouraging public dialog.
The Tribes are taking public comments through Friday, which can be filed here. Comments will be posted online early next week for public review.