The National Bison Range near Charlo has a way of anchoring itself in local’s sense of where they come from and who they are now.
Dave Stipe remembers as a kid taking visitors out to the range to see the herd.
"We grew up in our hot lunches eating the buffalo, the deer and the elk from the bison range," Stipe says.
Now, as a Lake County Commissioner, Stipe is part of a group working alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to outline how the Range and a few nearby wildlife refuges will be managed in the future.
These refuges are long overdue for new plans. Planning was delayed in 2016 when the Obama administration proposed that Service would transfer management of the bison range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, while the federal government held onto the land itself.
Last year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reversed course and announced the Fish and Wildlife Service would retain management.
Though dozens of people turned out for meetings when it looked like the Tribes would take over management, only a handful of people attended a series of open houses this week about five ideas the Service is considering for future management.
"They’re still very conceptual," says Bernardo Garza, a natural resources planner with the Service. He says the Service is looking at five different alternatives, which will guide management decisions on the National Bison Range and Lost Trail, Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges for the next 15 years.
"If you look at it, they don’t have a great degree of specificity, they're very general," he says. "We're saying these are our first ideas. What do you think of these ideas?"
One idea: Basically keep things the way they are now.
"It establishes a baseline that allows us to compare impacts and compare consequences with what we call the action alternatives," Garza says.
All of the six people who attended the Charlo open house Thursday said current staffing and funding levels at the Bison Range aren’t enough to maintain a healthy herd.
Another alternative would focus on visitor experience.
"The refuge would gear all of its management towards improving the quality of experience for all visitors, for all the hunters, fishermen, actually fishing people. All of the environmental education," Garza says.
A third would support resilient habitat and species diversity, and restore natural processes.
"In that case we would be de-emphasizing public uses," Garza says. "We'll be de-emphasizing special concern for threatened and endangered species, but we'd be favoring a more natural processes type of management for the refuge."
The fourth idea would manage for key species, like bison, wolverine, lynx and grizzly bears.
"All of the actions in the refuge, the visitor services program, the infrastructure, all of the staffing would be directed toward what are the needs of these species we're focused on," Garza says.
Finally, the fifth alternative emphasizes landscape-level conservation through partnerships.
Garza says the Service will spend the next one to two years analyzing potential impacts and hearing public feedback before selecting one alternative. The Service is working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and Lake and Sanders Counties.
Brian Upton, an attorney for the CSKT, says while the Tribes haven’t chosen an alternative they prefer, they’re looking for ways to partner and potentially co-manage the bison range.
"We've always viewed that as a good way for the Tribes to be reunited with the land and the buffalo at the bison range," Upton says. "And as you know, the Tribes are the landowner for the Ninepipe and Pablo Refuges, so involvement in partnership in that way makes sense."
Co-management isn’t part of the current planning process and would be decided after a plan is finalized.
Susan Reneau has actively followed the planning process. She attended the meeting in Charlo wearing a furry bison hat.
"My preference would be none of these alternatives," Reneau says, "because I don't see anything in them frankly that are what really goes back to what needs to happen.
Reneau says the refuges, and the bison range especially, need higher levels of staffing and funding.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting comments on the five proposed alternatives through May 25.
More information about the planning process is available here.
Comments on the National Bison Range may be sent to:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Scientific Resources
922 Bootleger Trail
Great Falls, Montana 59404
Comments on the Lost Trail, Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges can be sent to:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Branch of Planning and Policy
134 Union Boulevard, Suite 300
Lakewood, Colorado 80228