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U.S. Senate Bill Aims To Boost Bison Tribal Management

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has again introduced a bill that aims to create a permanent bison program within the Department of Interior to help bolster tribal involvement in the restoration and management of the creatures on tribal lands.

The Indian Buffalo Management Act, introduced Sept. 22 by Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., has received backing from the InterTribal Buffalo Council, of which seven Montana reservations are members, and several other bison management groups. A similar version of the bill, sponsored by the late Republican Alaska Rep. Don Young, passed the House of Representatives in late 2021 but stalled in the Senate. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., voted against the bill in the House.

The new version would create a permanent bison restoration and management program within the Interior Department to expand tribes’ abilities to manage bison and their habitat, and more closely include tribes in the department’s conversations and decisions surrounding management of the creature.

“I am proud to champion this bipartisan legislation to strengthen our federal support for tribal bison programs,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I hope that within my lifetime - thanks to a broad coalition - we will see bison return to the prominent place they once occupied as the keystone species on American shortgrass prairies.”

The bill would allow the Interior secretary to either enter agreements with, or award grants to, tribes that create and maintain bison restoration and management programs and use bison for commercial activity. It would also enshrine tribes’ abilities to help transfer bison from national parks like Yellowstone to tribal lands.

“It is simply impossible to overstate both the importance of the buffalo to the Indian people and the damage that was done when the buffalo were nearly wiped out,” said InterTribal Buffalo Council president Ervin Carlson, a Blackfeet tribal member. “By helping tribes reestablish buffalo herds on our reservation lands, the Congress will help us reconnect with a keystone of our historic culture as well as create jobs and an important source of protein that our people truly need.”

The bill’s introduction comes weeks after the Interior Department announced $5 million that would be put toward tribal bison conservation and expansion and ecosystem restoration in what Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said would help restore bison to its native lands and bring Indigenous stewardship practices into the department’s agenda.

About $3.5 million of the money from the Inflation Reduction Act will go toward supporting the InterTribal Buffalo Council’s herd development, while another $1.5 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could be sent to tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to expand tribal bison herds.

There is also less than a week left for the public to comment on a draft environmental impact statement for bison management at Yellowstone National Park that includes three proposals on how to manage population numbers in the park, including continuing to quarantine bison and transfer them to tribal lands via the Bison Conservation Transfer Program in varying numbers.

The Interagency Bison Management Plan team, comprised of federal, state, tribal and local partners, is also set to meet at the end of the month at Chico Hot Springs to discuss their plans for bison management this winter.

Last winter was one of the deadliest for Yellowstone bison in recent history, as around 1,500 bison either died during the harsh winter or were killed outside of the park through tribal and state hunts.

A nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis of the 2021 version of the bill found the measure, if it went into effect in 2023, would cost about $47 million over its first four years to implement and around $117 million over the first full decade.

In a written statement, a spokesperson for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Tester would again being cosponsoring the bill, as he did the 2021 version.

“Sen. Tester is proud to support this bipartisan bill that will help Montana Tribes revive buffalo herds on reservation lands,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Daines was reviewing the legislation and would be talking to tribal leaders and other locals “to ensure their voices are being heard.”

Several tribes in Montana are among 80 members of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which manages more than 20,000 bison in 20 states: the Blackfeet Nation, Chippewa Cree Tribe, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, and Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes.

Bison have been transferred to Fort Peck through the Bison Conservation Transfer Program, the Blackfeet Nation offered a hunt open to the public this past winter and released buffalo near Chief Mountain this summer, and the CSKT now manages the Bison Range on the reservation.

Robbie Magnan, the director of the Fort Peck Fish and Game Department, said Fort Peck and other InterTribal Buffalo Council members from Montana support the renewed effort to pass the Indian Buffalo Management Act in part because Fort Peck handles some of the transfers from Yellowstone, and feeding and preparing the bison to be sent to other tribes is getting more expensive because of hay costs, fuel, and maintenance.

He said until more funding is provided, Fort Peck cannot take in any more buffalo through the program despite more bison being ready for transfer during the next two years.

Magnan said the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council met in Denver last week and discussed supporting the legislation, among other things. He called the efforts to put more bison management back into the hands of tribes a “win-win situation.”

“We need to do that. We put all wildlife back into their ranges except for buffalo,” he said. “They’re not even back where they belong.”

Jason Baldes, the senior tribal buffalo program manager for the National Wildlife Federation and a board member of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, said the reintroduction of bison onto tribal lands will help heal the lands and protect tribal culture and ancestral connections.

“The Indian Buffalo Management Act not only acknowledges, but celebrates the intergenerational knowledge we hold in caring for this species and provides resources to ensure we can continue working with tribal, federal and conservation partners to establish prolific populations of buffalo across the country,” he said in a statement.

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