Fred Matt, tribal chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian tribes has a special passion -- the American bison.
"We had a long cultural history and connection with the bison," he said. "In the 1870s, our ancestors brought back a half-dozen calves to the Mission Valley from the plains when they saw the bison were being slaughtered to extinction."
By 1900, the free-ranging herd numbered about 1,000 in this valley hemmed by craggy mountains and Flathead Lake. But government officials had other plans for the "Flathead" Indians who inhabited this 1.2 million-acre reservation that bears that erroneous name.
In 1906, government officials forced tribal members to sell the bison to make way for homesteading. The beasts were shipped to Canada. In 1908, the federal government allocated 160-acre plots to each tribal member, then sold the rest of the land to non-Indians.
That same year, the American Bison Society convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to create a refuge for the nearly extinct species. The government "cut 18,000 acres out of the heart of the reservation," said Matt, and paid the tribes $1.56 an acre. "Then, they bought back some of the same animals that had been relocated to Canada." The tribes now want to contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the National Bison Range in Moiese, Mont., under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act Amendments of 1994.
The Salish and Kootenai would not own the bison range, says Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks. Also, regulations require a Fish and Wildlife manager to remain in charge, and the agency must maintain oversight of all inherently governmental duties.
Management of three other refuges on the reservation would come with the deal -- the Ninepipe and Pablo national wildlife refuges, each 2,000 acres, and parts of the 35,000-acre Northwest Montana Wetland Management District that are within reservation boundaries.
On all the lands, the tribes must agree to continue managing the refuges "with emphasis on the conservation of wildlife," Hoffman said.
An agreement with the tribes may be approved soon and then submitted for review by Congress and the public. Any pact must be renegotiated every fiscal year.
"This is an example of this administration's respect for Native Americans," Hoffman said. The Salish and Kootenai are not the only Native Americans looking to manage federal lands. But while some agencies have agreements with tribes to manage water resource projects, cleaning contracts and other activities, no tribe is yet managing a park or monument.
Successfully negotiating an annual funding agreement for the National Bison Range "will pave the way for other tribes," Hoffman said. But "each negotiation is independent, based on the facts of that unit and that specific tribe."
While the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees the Salish and Kootenai have the necessary cultural and historic ties to the refuges, "the major impediments are determining what are the inherently federal functions that must remain under Fish and Wildlife Service authority," Hoffman said.
The tribes have committed to maintaining the current refuge workforce, but employees remain wary. They worry about job security and advancement opportunities.
There is also a concern that Indian managers may not share the same philosophy of wildlife conservation that forms the cornerstone of the national refuge system.
John Byers, a professor of biology at the University of Idaho who has done research at the range for 25 years, says the agency has "been doing a great job of maintaining the ecology of the grassland in an unmodified way, while also balancing public demands for use. . . . I don't see any evidence that the tribe can do any of those things."
Current manager David Wiseman says a "perfect partnership" with the tribes would mean "there is still a Fish and Wildlife Service uniform presence, it still works like a refuge, employs [Fish and Wildlife] people, and is managed consistently with the rest of the national system -- pursuant to all federal regulations."
Tribal Chairman Matt insists the tribes have consistently shown a strong commitment to conservation. The Salish and Kootenai were the first tribes to set aside a reservation wilderness area -- 89,000 acres that cover much of the west flank of the Mission Mountain front. During the summer, even tribal members are denied access to more than 10,000 acres of wilderness to protect grizzly bears.
The tribes also have managed reintroduction programs for threatened peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and leopard frogs. Terry Virden, commissioner of Indian affairs, says the tribes are leaders in Indian Country and have taken over most Bureau of Indian Affairs programs on the reservation. "They oversee a $180 million budget and have never had a problem passing audits," he said.
Still, the proposal to transfer management of the bison range to the tribes has met stiff opposition from some in the local community -- where non-Indians outnumber tribal members about 6 to 1.
Since the 1970s, when the tribes first began flexing their political muscle, they have stepped on many toes. They established shoreline rules for the southern half of Flathead Lake and began taxing docks, and they negotiated a deal with the state to sell their own hunting and fishing permits on the reservation.
A public hearing on the bison range held in a high school gymnasium drew more than 500 people. About a fifth of the 80 speakers were critical of the tribes.
"Why turn over a refuge that has been run so well for 100 years?" said Del Palmer, a real estate agent from Charlo, Mont., who has battled tribal jurisdiction throughout the years on a number of fronts.
Others feared the tribes would hire only Indians to work at the refuges.
Federal law does allow tribal preference in hiring, yet about 65 percent of the tribes' professional workforce is composed of non-tribal members -- including its wildlife biology staff.