WASHINGTON, DC--A top deputy to Interior Secretary Gale Norton has signaled that he will turn over management and operational control of a federal wildlife refuge in Montana to a neighboring Native American tribe, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) who today asked for a full review of any actions ceding national assets to entities outside of public control.
Paul Hoffman, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, today has a closed-door negotiation with representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) over an agreement to award management of the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges to the tribes. This transaction is part of a wide ranging program to transfer control of national park and refuge operations of recognized geographic, historical, or cultural significance to the participating tribe requesting a compact.
The Department of Interior has listed 34 national parks in 15 states (including Redwood National Park in California, Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota and Olympic National Park in Washington), all 16 wildlife refuges in Alaska (including the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as well as 15 other refuges in the lower 48 states, where it will entertain offers from recognized tribes to take on some or all operations.
PEER contends that the authorizing law does not allow ceding "inherently federal" functions such as management control or law enforcement to an outside entity. In addition, Interior has yet to explain how it expects to prevent any tribal actions that would harm wildlife or that are incompatible with refuge or park resources.
The National Bison Range comprises 18,800 acres of prairie, forests and streams populated by elk, pronghorn, black bear and several hundred bison, and over 200 species of birds. The CSKT has announced plans to build a visitor center, with a new entranceway and road near Ravalli Pond, a bird-watchers' paradise that also provides important pronghorn fawning and elk wintering habitats. The tribe has also signaled that it would replace a score of federal biologists and other specialists on the refuge with contractors.
"This important precedent-setting change is being negotiated behind closed doors, with no public review and no explanation of how Interior will ensure the protection of the wildlife and other public resources within its custody," stated Grady Hocutt, a long-time former refuge manager and the director of PEER's refuge program. "Secretary Norton and her deputy seem far more concerned with removing federal employees from the payroll than they are with actually helping to promote tribal self- sufficiency."