Tester Bill Rights a Historic Wrong by Returning Ancestral Lands to Tribal Control, Updating Water Compact

MISSOULA, Mont. — New legislation from U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) affirms the water rights of the Fort Belknap Tribes and will also return ancestral lands to tribal control by restoring the Grinnell Notch to federal trust status for the Tribes. The bill, developed in collaboration with the Tribes, the state of Montana and other key stakeholders will bring certainty to both tribal and non-tribal water users throughout northern Montana. 

Congress established the Fort Belknap Reservation in 1888 for the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes. In the early 1890s, gold was discovered in the Little Rocky Mountains, and in 1895, federal negotiators pressured the Tribes to cede 30,000 acres of reservation land back to the federal government. The tract became known as the Grinnell Notch, after George Grinnell, one of the negotiators. 

“Senator Tester has taken an important step in righting a historic wrong by securing tribal and non-tribal water rights and returning the Grinnell Notch to the Tribes. This impactful legislation is a step toward environmental justice and restoring ancestral lands to our Tribal partners,” said Tom France, Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation.

"In addition to bringing some overdue closure to the Tribes’ claims, this proposal will benefit wildlife populations, habitat integrity and water quality," said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. "We are grateful to tribal leaders and Senator Tester for their commitment to protecting hunting and fishing access by non-tribal citizens, and making this proposal a real win for all Montanans." 

In the 1990s, the State of Montana and the Fort Belknap Tribes developed a water compact that confirmed tribal and non-tribal water rights under Montana law. The compact was overwhelmingly approved by the Montana Legislature. To give effect to the compact under federal law, and affirm new rights associated with the Milk River and St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Project, federal legislation is needed. Senator Tester’s bill addresses this need.

“Updating the water compact between Montana and the Fort Belknap Tribes will give certainty to both tribal and non-tribal water users. This is an important step for both water development and water conservation,” France said. 


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