Tribal spokesman Rob McDonald says such a move is warranted and long overdue.
"This land has been our homeland for thousands of years and against our will it was taken from our possession. It’s land that we have a long connection to on all kinds of levels and it’s in the middle of our reservation – at the heart of our reservation – I think it’s pretty clear why this would be important to us.”
But the group that filed the lawsuit vehemently opposes any move to transfer management of the Bison Range – or any other refuge for that matter – out of federal control.
"There has never been a refuge taken out of the system before. We’re concerned about it for this refuge. We’re concerned about its precedent-setting nature and it should be subject to a full environmental review as required by the National Environmental Policy Act before such a proposal is made to Congress."
That’s Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER. That group and 10 individual plaintiffs are suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Agency officials met with tribal leadership back in early February.
They pitched the possibility of transferring Bison Range lands into trust for the benefit of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai people. The Fish and Wildlife Service has been talking about the idea since at least 2003.
PEER’s Paula Dinerstein says national refuges are intended for all Americans and they’re concerned that the "public nature of the land, and the professional way it’s managed and so forth would be diminished. It’s not because it’s an Indian tribe, this would be the case if they were trying to turn it over to some corporation or other entity.”
But CSKT tribal spokesman Rob McDonald isn’t so sure about that.
"Careful there, because PEER has often called, or compared the tribes to a corporation, so I don’t really favor that analogy. PEER has called us specifically many unfriendly things and terms.”
McDonald says PEER’s strategy has long been to throw a wide variety of accusations at the wall just to see what will stick:
"I think the most important points that the public has brought to our attention time and time again will be addressed in the bill language; that will be that the bison range will be kept open to the public. The bison range will be managed for the care and maintenance of the bison."
To be clear, there is no formal bill championing this proposal.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Anna Muñoz tells us it’s an ongoing process that will require congressional approval.
She says the agency does not know when, or even if, legislation will be formally introduced.
In an emailed response to our questions, Muñoz says the CSKT are, "well equipped to manage the lands and resources that comprise the National Bison Range. They have one of the best tribal wildlife programs in the country and have been an active partner with the Service in the management of the National Bison Range. The Service believes now is the right time to begin the transition into trust of a refuge long ago carved out of tribal lands."
The PEER lawsuit also takes the Fish & Wildlife Service to task for failing to develop a conservation plan for the Bison Range.
Anna Muñoz says the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says a lawsuit is necessary even though there’s no official transfer proposal on the table.
I asked attorney Paula Dinerstein if that was putting the cart before the horse.
"They’ve met with the congressional delegation from Montana. They’ve announced publicly to all Fish and Wildlife Service employees that they’re going to do this. If that proposal fizzles and disappears we’ll be perfectly happy. But they’re supposed to do this environmental review before they make the proposal."
PEER’s lawsuit was filed in U.S District Court in Washington D.C. The government has 60 days to answer the complaint.