Washington, DC -- In a clear signal that it is committed to sign a controversial 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), the U.S. Department of Interior yesterday rebuffed calls from that state's congressional delegation to hold public hearings and extend the public comment period.
The announcement came as part of an unusual joint release with the Tribes in which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service repudiated its own cost estimates for the deal and issued new figures estimating the first year cost at $23,460 – an amount more than 90 percent below the $300,000 to $500,000 first year costs the agency had been publicly stating.
The National Bison Range funding agreement was dictated by political appointees in the Department of Interior after the Fish & Wildlife Service had raised a host of practical problems, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Closed-door negotiations between Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Paul 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.
PEER and other refuge groups have submitted public comments laying out management, financial and personnel concerns that may negatively effect wildlife protection on the National Bison Range Complex, covering 18,800 acres of prairie and woodlands populated by elk, pronghorn, black bear and several hundred bison. In addition, the National Bison arrangement may become the model for similar deals affecting 34 national parks and 31 national wildlife refuges.
"This is a classic case of politics trumping wildlife," stated Grady Hocutt, a long-time former refuge manager and the director of PEER's refuge program, claiming that the word coming out of Interior is that the Bison Range agreement is "a done deal" despite uncertainties about the agreement's provisions. "I would bet the farm that Interior already has a day picked out for the signing ceremony."
While the purpose of the public comment period, which ended yesterday, was to highlight potential pitfalls in the funding arrangement, Interior has –
- Dismissed calls by both Senator Conrad Burns and Representative Denny Rehberg for public hearings and extending the comment period;
- Published new cost figures on the day the comment period ended, thus precluding any meaningful discussion of what the deal will cost taxpayers. Moreover, FWS offered no explanation why the new figures were so different from its previous estimates; and
- Agreed to provisions that will make it very difficult to end the arrangement unless there is "imminent jeopardy" to public safety or wildlife due to the CSKT's actions.
Once the final agreement is signed, it will be submitted to Congress for a 90-day review period before it is implemented.
"I think the public comment period was window dressing because Interior shows no intention of fixing the basketful of problems this will visit on the National Wildlife Refuge System for decades to come," Hocutt concluded.