Blackfeet Nation leaders, citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, have decided to keep the eastern entrances to Glacier National Park closed for the rest of the tourism season.
The Blackfeet Reservation borders the east side of the park. The tribe’s Business Council passed an ordinance on Thursday closing the entrances, saying the move was necessary to protect residents of the reservation — where tribal citizens suffer from higher rates of existing health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious complications of COVID-19 — as case numbers continue their recent rise statewide.
The closure affects entrances along Two Medicine, Chief Mountain, St. Mary’s, Cut Bank Creek and Many Glacier roads, according to the tribe.
“The escalation of cases in Montana is what prompted [the decision],” said Robert DesRosier, head of the tribe’s COVID-19 Incident Command. “It’s not a risk worth taking. It’s lives versus dollars.”
Through Flathead County, visitors will still be able to access the west-side entrances to the park, which officials opened earlier this month with restrictions.
Park spokeswoman Gina Kerzman said the park has no plans to contest the decision.
“I think that we’re going to respect the tribe’s decision and figure out how to work around that,” she said. “We understand their concerns.”
Kerzman said she found out about the decision Thursday afternoon, and that park officials are still figuring out what it means for operations, like which facilities and campgrounds to open, for the rest of the season. She said she expects more traffic on the west side of the park this summer due to the closures, but that officials didn’t otherwise have projections of how the entrance closures might affect revenue or visitation.
Indigenous people in Montana, and nationwide, are more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to higher rates of existing health conditions like diabetes and respiratory diseases. Other factors, like crowded housing, have prompted Indian Country leaders to say community spread of the virus could devastate tribal communities.
On the Blackfeet Reservation, tribal leaders have continued to enforce a stay-at-home order, curfew, travel restrictions and other measures, even as Montana has continued to ease restrictions. Other tribes in Montana have also extended stay-at-home orders or set up roadside checkpoints to ensure visitors don’t linger on reservation lands.
As of Friday, 13% of coronavirus patients in Montana self-identified as Indigenous, while making up about 7% of the state’s population.
While the virus hasn’t been reported among Blackfeet Nation residents yet, Business Council member Mark Pollock said in an online statement Friday that the tribe’s decisions are being made with vulnerable elders and those with compromised immune systems in mind. He said the tribe’s efforts, and tribal citizens’ adherence to public health recommendations like wearing masks in public, are working.
“Our elders, a lot of them, have a lot of knowledge that hasn’t been passed on yet. Once that knowledge is gone from them, if it hasn’t been shared, that knowledge is gone forever,” Pollock said. “If we let the coronavirus in here somehow, then that knowledge could be gone … let’s be respectful of this coronavirus.”
Testing has confirmed 829 cumulative cases in the state, with 218 currently active. On Thursday, state officials reported 37 new cases, the highest one-day increase since the virus emerged in the state.
Most tourist spending related to park visitation went through Flathead County in 2018, according to a study by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. Still, visitors spent $110 million in Glacier County, which includes much of the Blackfeet Reservation, that year.
Though some visitors to Montana have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent weeks, Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday that the greater concern among health officials is nonresidents visiting family in Montana and residents returning to the state after traveling.
Bullock has said the state will begin publicly tracking nonresident cases on the state’s online dashboard at some point. It’s unclear how many visitors have tested positive while in Montana, or when those cases will be added to the online tracker.