Jigsaw Puzzle

Story and photos by ALYSE BACKUS

A jigsaw puzzle. That’s how Dale Becker, wildlife manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, describes tribal land outside of St. Ignatius.

Federal agencies manage areas like Kicking Horse Reservoir and Nine Pipes Wildlife Refuge, but the tribes own the banks and land under any body of water. Then the state manages other areas. That makes teamwork vital to these areas being maintained properly.

“We have a good working relationship with Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Forest Service,” says Becker.

One area that belongs strictly to tribes is the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness Area. The area is 89,500 acres, mostly untouched. Rather than maintaining this area for recreation, like the Forest Service does on the east side of the mountain range, the tribes manage for wildlife protection. Trails see little or no maintenance, and visitation isn’t exactly encouraged, but you can purchase a $11 tribal pass, which is good for a year.

A large portion of the wilderness is closed off to everyone from early summer to late fall.  This is to decrease chances of bear encounters. The section closed off is home to grizzly bears feasting on ladybugs and cutworms.

The Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness was established in 1979 at a tribal council meeting. A huge logging project had been proposed in the area, but the tribe wanted to preserve the land that was so important to their culture. The land set aside became the first time a tribe took ownership of a wilderness area.

“The goal of the tribal wilderness area is maintain the un-trampled character,” says Becker. “We all cherish this area, tribal and non-tribal.”

“We are attempting to keep that area frozen in time,” says Tom McDonald, recreation manager for the tribes.

Today, there are still specials areas that are limited to tribal members only.

So yes, the roads may seem abandoned and trailheads may seem faded. But this isn’t a sign of apathy and neglect. Rather, this untouched land represents a deep respect and passion for the lands, and the tribes have every intention of keeping it that way.