A bison grazes at the National Bison Range, which will be returned to tribal control after the CSKT Tribal Council unanimously ratified the tribes' water compact with the state. Credit: Erika Peterman / Sova Partners

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes ratified their water compact with the state on Tuesday, ending a decades-long process to settle water right claims affecting a huge swath of Montana’s irrigated land. 

The U.S. Congress ratified the compact — passed by the Montana Legislature in 2015 — last week as part of a massive appropriations bill. President Donald Trump signed the bill on Sunday, leaving ratification by the tribes as the final hurdle to finalizing the agreement. 

The CSKT Tribal Council unanimously voted to ratify the agreement on Tuesday during a meeting held via Zoom.

With the tribes’ ratification, the federal government will create a $1.9 billion trust fund for repairing the deteriorating Flathead Indian Irrigation Project. Additionally, the tribes will regain control of the National Bison Range. 

In exchange, the tribes agreed to relinquish claims to the vast majority of their off-reservation water rights claims, which could have limited irrigation in 51 of the state’s 85 adjudication basins. The CSKT had filed thousands of claims based on the tribes’ 1855 Hellgate Treaty with the federal government, by which the tribe retained the right to hunt and fish in traditional locations both on and off the present-day Flathead Reservation in exchange for ceding more than 20 million acres of land. 

A tribal spokesman didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. But after Congress approved the compact last week, CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said during a press conference that the agreement would have a “profound and positive impact on the future of the Flathead Reservation for the next century.” 

“Now we can avoid decades of acrimonious litigation on streams across much of Montana and protect many streams with sufficient amounts of water to ensure that fish can survive,” Fyant said. 

The compact had languished since Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced legislation to ratify it in 2016. Montana’s other U.S. senator, Republican Steve Daines, introduced a bill late last year, co-sponsored by Tester, to finalize the compact. 

Groups including the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Agricultural Business Association and Association of Gallatin Agricultural Irrigators have said finalizing the compact would offer certainty for irrigators, protect the state’s water and help avoid years of costly litigation. 

“The success of Montana’s agriculture industry is dependent upon water and water rights certainty,” said Jim Steinbeisser, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, in a statement Monday.It is easily the single most important resource for people across Montana, which is why MSGA has long supported an agreement such as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act.”

While most state-level Republicans, including Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, have said they support the compact, some hard-line conservatives have argued that the agreement is unfair to non-tribal landowners and that the compact’s legal basis is flawed

On Monday, a group of Republican state legislators accused Daines of betrayal for supporting the compact, saying they will fight to have it overturned. That letter was followed by a Tuesday request from Republican state Sen. Keith Regier, who signed the letter, that legislative staff draft a bill withdrawing the state from the compact.

Ryan Rusche, a CSKT tribal attorney, told the Tribal Council on Tuesday that Regier’s effort, even if passed, would have no effect now that the compact has been ratified by the Tribal Council. 

“This is the final step that makes sure that all parties agree to the deal that folks negotiated and have indicated their support for over the last decade or so,” Rusche told the council. 

After Congress ratified the compact, Fyant said tribal leaders could either approve the agreement themselves or put it to a vote by tribal citizens. 

On Tuesday, another tribal attorney, Rhonda Swaney, encouraged the Tribal Council itself to ratify the compact in order to prevent any attempts by “outside entities” to further challenge the agreement, pointing to the Republican legislators’ letter to Daines as an example. 

“We’re trying to head off any possible obstacles,” she said. “We just would encourage you to go ahead and approve it so that we can head off some of those problems.”

After some quiet claps and thumbs-up from tribal leaders during Tuesday’s meeting, Tribal Council member Martin Charlo said he was thankful for the efforts of Rusche and others in the tribes’ legal department who worked on the compact. 

“I was going to bring you a football in to spike today, but I totally spaced it out,” he said. “So congrats to you and all the legal team and everyone … that’s helped us.”

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.