Washington, DC — In a signing ceremony slated for tomorrow, the U.S. Department of Interior will turn half of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana over to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), according to an agency email released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Tomorrow's inking of the agreement comes amid rising protests from refuge managers across the country, unanswered concerns from conservation groups and uncertainty as to the costs, both for the refuge and for the National Wildlife Refuge System, of this and similar tribal turnovers.
Over the objections of its own Fish & Wildlife Service, Department of Interior political appointees ramrodded the Bison Range funding agreement through. 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 deal that awards approximately half of the management responsibilities, positions and funding for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges to the Tribes. Once signed, the agreement takes effect in 90 days unless vetoed by Congress.
Despite the fact that 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 has yet to develop any overall policy to guide its dealings and is negotiating individual deals on an ad hoc basis. Moreover, the exact terms of this particular agreement will not be published until after it has been signed, in spite of several major amendments being floated by both the tribes and the Fish & Wildlife Service.
"The Department of Interior is choosing to leap before it looks at the consequences," stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs PEER's refuge program, pointing to an unprecedented letter protesting the CSKT agreement signed by more than one third of the approximately 242 managers overseeing more than 500 wildlife sanctuaries. 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]
At the same time, the agreement has drawn negative reviews from approximately 40 conservation organizations, including the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Wilderness Society, the American Bird Conservancy and the Chicago Zoological Society. Former Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service Jamie Clark, now vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, has also urged major changes before proceeding with the agreement. None of the concerns raised by this array of groups has been answered by Interior.
"The National Wildlife Refuge System does not belong to one political party; it is the legacy of healthy wildlife for future Americans and should be handled with care and in the full sunlight of public disclosure," added Hocutt. "Interior has done a disservice to one of the crown jewels of the refuge system and to the people who have dedicated their careers to it."