US Wildlife Areas and American Indian Lands

The United States federal government claims public ownership of vast amounts of land in the Intermountain West. As Americans became interested in preserving natural environments in the twentieth century, the nation set aside parts of this western land as national parks, wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, and recreation areas. Americans often imagined they were preserving untamed, untouched wilderness and setting it aside, beyond human use.

However, the land was not truly untouched or untamed. Indigenous peoples of the Americas had inhabited, traveled through, foraged from, and relied upon the natural landscape for generations, sometimes even thousands of years. While the United States made its own claims to the land—sometimes truly preserving the environment and sometimes exploiting the landscape for more destructive ends—tribal nations also expressed their land rights derived from heritage and treaties.

The following tour highlights tensions at five different federally designated sites in the Intermountain West. The history of various claims and uses speaks to how contested the territories are and to ongoing struggles over who truly controls the land.

Land Claims in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Like many areas in the continental United States and beyond, human presence in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge spans not hundreds of years but thousands. Though steady environmental changes altered the land’s usage over time (mainly the rise and…

Culture, Coulee, and the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

The Columbia River has a unique and essential history involving indigenous people from across the Columbia Plateau, spanning thousands of years and dozens of tribes. A gathering place and trade site for many, the Columbia River has long provided its…