Washington, DC -- The Department of Interior is preventing the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from releasing cost figures on a proposed funding arrangement to turn half of the operations of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Paul Hoffman, is delaying a response to Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mt) and Representative Denny Rehberg (R-Mt), who have both asked to see the plan's estimated costs.
On August 10, Sen. Conrad Burns wrote to FWS Director Steve Williams asking what the annual cost of the arrangement would be, where the funds to pay for it would be found and whether the Service completed an environmental analysis. Nearly two months later, no response has been forthcoming and only three working days remain in the public comment period.
In public hearings, Fish & Wildlife Service officials have verbally estimated that the CSKT arrangement will cost between $300,000 and $500,000 over and above current expenses during the first year alone. At the same time, the National Wildlife Refuge System currently has an operational and maintenance deficit between $1.8 and $2 billion.
"Taxpayers not only have a right to know how much of their money will be used to lubricate this deal but also what other wildlife programs must be cut in order to finance it," stated Grady Hocutt, a long-time former refuge manager and the director of PEER's refuge program. "The word coming down from Interior is this is ‘a done deal' regardless of cost and number of difficulties that remain unresolved."
The National Bison Range comprises 18,800 acres of prairie and woodlands populated by elk, pronghorn, black bear and several hundred bison. Closed-door negotiations between Hoffman and the CSKT produced a draft agreement to award approximately half of the management responsibilities for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges to the Tribes. Released in mid-July, public comment on the 57-page document ends next Monday, October 11. The Bison Range agreement is part of a wide-ranging program to transfer refuge and national park operations of geographic, historical, or cultural significance to recognized tribes requesting compacts.
On September 28, Rep. Denny Rehberg also wrote asking for cost information and requested FWS to "extend the comment period and hold additional public meetings should the budget figures indicate the management increases costs to the American taxpayer. This is simply a matter of common sense and good government." FWS has yet to respond to this letter either.
"There appears to be consensus that this agreement benefits members of the Salish and Kootenai Tribes but what is less clear is the effect this deal has on the stewardship mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System," added Hocutt, noting that Interior has listed 34 national parks in 15 states (including Redwood National Park in California and Olympic National Park in Washington), all 16 wildlife refuges in Alaska (including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) as well as 15 other refuges in the lower 48 states, where it will entertain offers from tribes to take on some or all operations. "As this is a precedent setting agreement that may affect scores of refuges and national parks from the Yukon to Mexico, it behooves us to get it right."