The historic Figure Four Ranch has been formally returned to the Three Affiliated Tribes.
The roughly 9,300-acre ranch borders the reservation's west side between Lake Sakakawea and the Little Missouri River. The tribes converted it to a bison ranch after acquiring it from ranchers Dean and Shirley Meyer in 1999.
The tribes in 2011 requested the land be transferred from fee to trust status, meaning it's not taxable, but their request was deferred until May, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the transfer. The federal government attributed the delay to "barriers and red tape."
"I'm thankful the current administration heeded our pleas about getting it completed," Chairman Mark Fox said Monday at a deed-signing ceremony at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck.
Fox said the delayed decision stalled energy development, which will now be allowed to move forward.
"It is a great honor to approve the transfer of these lands into trust status and to support the tribe's efforts to diversify its economy," Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Mac Lean Sweeny said in a May 24 news release.
The approval of the Three Affiliated Tribes' application will return to the tribes a portion of the lands originally included within the Fort Berthold Reservation boundaries under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851.
The ranch straddles Dunn and McKenzie counties, with about 8,300 acres in Dunn County. Officials with these counties previously expressed concerns with the transfer, including the loss of annual property taxes.
Dunn County Auditor Tracey Dolezal said the ranch generated about $4,100 in property taxes in 2018. County Commission Chairman Daryl Dukart said Monday that he hadn't heard of the transfer to trust status and declined to comment.
McKenzie County officials also previously expressed worries about the effect on the heavily traveled County Road 53 through the property.
Fox said the road will now likely be placed under the operation and maintenance of the BIA.
Fox said he hadn't heard "a lot of resistance" to the transfer "because it's really significant to economic development, in general."
"With this getting into trust, the quicker we can move toward development," he said.
In addition to energy development, Fox said, the tribes hope to improve tourism at the ranch, including expanding the hunting of buffalo and elk and potentially building a hotel or resort there.