Debate over transferring federal public lands to state ownership or management has largely dominated Montana’s U.S. House race between the main party candidates.
Across the country, some state lawmakers and members of Congress are pushing to transfer federal lands to state ownership or control, a movement that has gained traction and created some controversy.
Incumbent Republican Ryan Zinke and challenger Democrat Denise Juneau both say their stances on these issues are clear.
“I have always been a strong supporter of public lands and have voted against the transfer or sale of public lands," Zinke says. "My position is known and well established.”
Denise Juneau says, “I remain 100 percent opposed to any transfer of management or selling of American public lands.”
The candidates have sparred over whether votes Zinke has taken in Congress, or Juneau on the state’s land board, are consistent with those statements.
Less talked about, though, is one case where the management of nearly 19,000 federally-managed acres in Northwest Montana could change hands.
That’s the proposal by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to take over management of the National Bison Range north of Missoula.
Zinke says he’s undecided, but Juneau, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa and Blackfeet heritage, says she supports the plan.
“They are taking back their rights as a tribe to oversee an animal that was really important to them culturally, spiritually, and they are really poised to do a good job,” she says.
The range is home to some 350-500 bison, and was carved out of the Flathead reservation in 1908. It’s currently managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In February, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the Tribes they’d support the transfer of management of the federally-owned land back to the Tribes.
In June, the Tribes released a draft bill to do that.
Juneau says her opposition to transferring ownership or management of federal land does not come into play here.
“This is a very different scenario," Juneau says. "These are a tribal government with this particular relationship, legal relationship, with the federal government restoring the management to the tribe. It is not a transfer. The underlying land will still belong to the United States. It's basically a restoration of the management of the bison.”
Republican Ryan Zinke has remained uncommitted on the draft legislation since its release.
In a written statement to Montana Public Radio Zinke said he is, “still collecting opinions from constituents and coalition groups that have expressed both support and concerns about the proposal.”
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes collected public comment on their proposal in July.
Of the 145 comments, just over half supported the plan, a little over a third opposed it, and others asked questions but remained fairly neutral.
Some asked how the tribes would continue to fund the operations of the Bison Range, and how public access might change.
In response, the Tribes said public access will continue and, “maintaining reasonable entry fees would be essential to supporting the Tribes’ interests in public education and visitor experiences at the Bison Range.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently charges $5 per vehicle to enter the range.
Others expressed concern that the Tribes’ act might create precedent for federal agencies giving up management of wildlife refuges, or restoring land to tribes.
A group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility agrees,and is suing to stop the proposed transfer by arguing that the it can’t happen without further review under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Every issue can be politicized during an election year," says Juneau.
But she says giving management of the bison range to the tribes in this case is about restoring something that belonged to the tribes. It's not about politics and it's not about the larger land transfer movement.
"For me this is an issue, I’m glad these conversations are happening, and this dialog is happening about this restoration of this management," Juneau says. "I think the tribes are ready.”
If the tribe's proposal is supported by Congress, the land will continue to be held in trust by the United States.
Earlier this month the Tribes released a second draft of their proposal.
The bill draft is now called the National Bison Range Restoration Act.
This version of the plan dropped the word ‘transfer’ from the title.
The Tribes' Robert McDonald says this change makes the plan more accurate.
“The land is not being transferred to the tribes, it is being moved between federal agencies holding it in trust for the tribes," McDonald says. "So it restores it back to the status it was in when the reservation was created in 1855.”
The updated draft also finesses another hot political topic. It now requires “public access” on the bison range. The old draft required what was phrased as “public visitation”, substantively meaning the same thing.
Montana Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines say they are continuing to review the proposal and public comments collected by the Tribes.
The Tribes say they want Congress to pass their bill this year, a difficult task given the few months remaining, especially with those months being dominated by the election season.
In a heavy political year where perceptions of a candidate's support for public lands are used as artillery against opposing campaigns, the recent draft changes could help the bill, and candidates, avoid some of the political salvos moving forward.