WASHINGTON, DC — A sweeping bill settling tribal claims over much of Western Montana's water supply is officially introduced in Congress.
The 65-page measure enacts a settlement agreement worth billions of dollars, covering not only water rights, but property transfers and ownership of the National Bison Range.
Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the bipartisan Montana Water Rights Protection Act permanently settling the century old dispute over water rights claimed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
As we reported first last week, the agreement sees CSKT relinquishing most of the water rights attached to the 1855 Hellgate Treaty, bringing more $2 billion to Montana for the tribes and improvements to the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project and infrastructure in Lake and Sanders Counties.
The bill also preserves the ability of tribal and non-tribal residents to resolve disputes through Montana's water court. But the bill is about more than water. The final legislation also confirms rumors that it aims to transfer ownership of the National Bison Range to CSKT, a "hot button" proposal that's simmered for years.
The Act acknowledges the tribes' ability to manage the herd and range outside of the National Wildlife Refuge system, saying the land was taken from the reservation for the refuge in 1908 without the tribes' consent. It preserves public access.
The Act also outlines a system for transferring more than 36-thousand acres of state trust land, and even private land from cooperating property owners to become a part of the reservation trust lands.