HELENA, Montana — A federal judge has refused to get involved in a fight over water rights between Native American tribes and non-tribal farmers and ranchers on a reservation in northwestern Montana.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen on Monday dismissed a lawsuit by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that asked the court affirm that an 1855 treaty reserves water flowing through the Flathead Indian Reservation for tribal use.
The court fight could be a moot point, Christensen wrote in his decision, if a water negotiation between the state, federal and tribal governments is ratified by the U.S. Congress.
"The CSKT Compact resolves tribal priority to the water at issue," Christensen wrote of the negotiation, which received the state's stamp of approval this legislative session. If the compact moves forward, he said the tribes' lawsuit would be needless because their rights are outlined in that agreement.
The order appeared to be a loss for the tribes, but their attorney said he believed otherwise.
Christensen wrote that the state courts are "duty-bound to follow federal law" regarding tribal water rights.
If the compact ultimately fails, attorney John Carter said that wording could go a long way to defend the claims the tribes are expected to register with the state in mid-June.
"The case was dismissed, but the court did a very good job of protecting the tribes' claims in the language itself," Carter said. "The reason the tribes filed this suit was the impression that the (state) courts were not following the federal law."
The Montana Attorney General's office had requested that the federal court dismiss the tribes' call for a proclamation of tribal water rights. Christensen upheld the attorney general's request, saying the disputed issue is best decided at the state level. The attorney general's office declined to comment on Christensen's decision.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes responded this week to a separate complaint concerning the water compact.
Flathead County Republican Party Chair Jayson Peters contended in an April 7 complaint that the tribes violated state campaign laws by failing to report payments made to pro-compact lobbyists.
On Monday, the tribes argued in a letter to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices that their grassroots lobbying efforts were not subject to reporting requirements that they wrote are "not particularly clear."