Washington, DC -- In an unprecedented move, 23 National Wildlife Refuge Managers from across the country have filed a protest against the 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 Refuge Managers' letter of protest, released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), lists a host of practical, programmatic and legal weaknesses to the pending deal.
The central conclusion of the joint letter is that the National Bison Range agreement with the CSKT is so poorly crafted that it is unworkable:
"No Refuge Manager, no matter how skilled, could successfully implement this agreement as it is written." [Emphasis in original]
The joint letter, dated October 8, is endorsed by Refuge Managers that are also "eligible for inclusion in annual funding agreements to be negotiated with self-governance Tribes." The Department of Interior has listed 34 national parks, 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 on the same basis as the agreement with the CSKT.
The National Bison Range funding agreement was dictated by political appointees in the Department of Interior. Closed-door negotiations between Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Paul Hoffman, a former Dick Cheney aide, 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
"This deal is about politics, not wildlife protection; it compromises not only the National Bison Range but also the entire National Wildlife Refuge System," stated Grady Hocutt, a long-time former refuge manager and the director of PEER's refuge program. "Paul Hoffman may know something about politics but he knows beans about what it takes to run a National Wildlife Refuge."
Last week, Interior forced the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to repudiate its own cost estimates for the National Bison Range funding agreement 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 that USFWS had been publicly stating. Two days later, Interior announced that it would reopen the public comment period on the arrangement for another 15 days to allow comment on the new figures.
The joint letter by Refuge Managers cites "vague," "imprecise" and "indistinct" provisions that make it impossible "to monitor and evaluate" performance or costs under the agreement. In addition, the Refuge Managers contend that "inherently Federal functions" of controlling public records, supervising civil servants and collecting public funds would be improperly delegated to the CSKT.