Washington, DC — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are proposing changes to their agreement with the U.S. Department of Interior to turn half of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana over to the tribe, according to a memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The changes are intended to quell concerns that have been raised by employees, conservationists and neighbors of the refuge.
A signing ceremony for the agreement, reportedly slated for this week, has been postponed a second time to work out even more amendments to the deal. The changes agreed to so far by the tribe in closed-door negotiations held last month with Interior officials in Washington, D.C. include –
- Specifying how the Refuge Manager may seek to remedy a "performance deficiency" by the tribe;
- Requiring the CSKT to ensure that its employees assigned to the refuge have the proper "skill and/or experience" to do the job;
- Clarifying who is responsible for accidents by volunteers under tribal supervision;
- Allowing seasonal federal employees transferred to the tribe to stay longer than six months; and
- Narrowing tribal lobbying with federal funds and the ability of CSKT to waive federal regulations.
"The fact that these issues are still not fixed strongly indicates that this agreement is not ready for prime time," stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager and the director of PEER's refuge program, who obtained the memo through the Freedom of Information Act. "These proposed alterations acknowledge but do not solve the problems we and others have raised."
The public comment period for the agreement was extended to November 4, after Interior belatedly released cost estimates for the plan. A proposed signing ceremony on November 12 was postponed after outcry that Interior would not have time to respond to the concerns raised in public comments. Once signed, the agreement takes effect in 90 days unless vetoed by Congress.
"Interior has still not responded to the comments raised by the public," added Hocutt, noting that even more changes remain to be hammered out. "This thing is a moving target; the public is not going to get a chance to look at the final document before it is signed."
Today, PEER also released a joint letter signed by 121 retirees of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Interior agency that operates the network of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, including Bison Range. The retirees are asking Interior Secretary Gale Norton to "table the plan" to turn half the refuge over to the tribe, writing that they "are particularly disturbed that those with experience in refuge management have been repeatedly overruled and shut out of the process." Previously, more than 60 active Refuge Mangers signed a letter of protest saying that the agreement was unworkable.
Interior lists 31 wildlife refuges and 34 national parks where it will entertain offers from tribes to take over operations on the same basis as the agreement with the CSKT. The agency is negotiating deals on an ad hoc basis without any overall policy to guide its dealings.