This West Is OUR West

Blackfeet Nation wants to create its own national park in Montana

Posted May 6, 2019

By Jamie Hale | The Oregonian/OregonLive

Chief Mountain is located on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, at the border with the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The possibility of a new national park is being considered in western Montana, not run by the federal government but by a sovereign American Indian tribe.

Blackfeet Nation, whose reservation borders Glacier National Park, is studying the feasibility of opening up part of its land for public recreation, KPAX reported in Great Falls. The new park could possibly alleviate some of the crowds at Glacier, which now routinely near or exceed 3 million people each year.

The idea is part of a broader effort on the tribe’s part to look at new ways to utilize its agricultural resources. A conservation area would also include opening grass prairies as rangeland for bison and cattle.

Operating a national park would help fund those projects.

“We can look at the fee structure and the creation of a conservation area or in this case, a national park that would allow us to collect fees from people coming into Blackfeet National Park,” project manager Loren Bird Rattler told KPAX.

As a sovereign nation, the Blackfeet Tribe would operate the park independently of the National Park Service. That would free it from some of the political issues that typically befall national parks – like federal funding requests and closures due to government shutdowns.

Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park, told KPAX that a neighboring Blackfeet National Park would ultimately benefit everyone by thinning crowds, providing for the tribe and continuing a shared goal of environmental sustainability.

The feasibility study is expected to take 12 to 18 months.

Much of the Glacier National Park was originally tribal land in the first place, even after white settlers took over. According to High Country News, the eastern half of the park was once part of the Blackfeet Reservation, as laid out in an 1855 treaty with the United States. The federal government purchased it for $1.5 million in 1895, lured by the prospect of mineral extraction in the mountains before declaring it a national park in 1910.

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The Blackfeet Reservation is vital habitat for a variety of wildlife and home to a diverse local community.

The Blackfeet Indian Reservation covers 1.5 million acres of some of the richest wildlife habitat on the Rocky Mountain Front and is an integral corner that connects wildlife on the Front to the rest of the Crown of the Continent ecosystem. It’s a beautiful mosaic of native grassland, prairie pothole lakes, wetlands and aspen parklands. Hugging the eastern slopes of Glacier National Park, the reservation is vital habitat for much of the park’s extraordinary wildlife. In addition to grizzlies, the land shelters a rich variety of other wildlife and bird species.

The reservation is also home to a distinct indigenous nation, the Blackfeet Nation. To the Blackfeet, or Amskapii Piikunni -- the southern band of the Blackfoot Confederacy, they originated in this beautiful environment and have evolved with the landscape for thousands of years. Today, the Blackfeet Nation is one of the ten largest federally recognized Native American Tribes in the United States.

History

Our history of working with the Blackfeet goes back nearly two decades. In the late 1990’s The Nature Conservancy in Montana began to examine the importance of the biology on the Reservation and to engage with the Blackfeet tribal council.  In 2000, this resulted in a collaboration with tribal members to create the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust (BILT) – the first Native American Land Trust in the nation.  The Conservancy subsequently purchased the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary in 2001 and transferred it to BILT in 2003.

In 2013, the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary was dedicated to its namesake, Eloise Cobell, a founding member of BILT and a former Montana Chapter Trustee. Cobell became a heroine for native people across the U.S.by waging a 15-year legal battle over the federal government’s mismanagement of billions of dollars in Indian trust lands – ultimately winning a settlement, in 2009, for $3.4 billion dollars.

In 2015, the Conservancy hired a new, full-time Land Protection Specialist, to live and work on the reservation. This commitment of staff and resources allows us to grow our relationships within the community, and take our partnership with the Blackfeet to a new level. It also allows us to identify conservation opportunities that are inclusive of community priorities and well-being.

Strategy and Goals

We are deeply committed to strengthening the Conservancy’s relationship with the Blackfeet and committed to creating enduring conservation outcomes. Working with the community on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation has been very rewarding. We have deliberately taken a respectful approach, founded in learning and listening, to help us better understand conservation challenges and opportunities from Blackfeet perspectives. These perspectives and input from the community will provide the foundation of a conservation plan that will focus our work where we can have the greatest impact.