Washington, DC — A precedent-setting agreement that turned half of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana over to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) is proving unworkable, according to an agency performance report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The controversial agreement was signed last year despite objections from nearly 100 national wildlife refuge managers that it was an untenable arrangement, a warning that appears to have been validated by the first year experience.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service performance evaluation obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, the tribe failed to perform many agreed upon functions, did other work incompletely, failed to provide qualified personnel and, in some cases, misplaced funds. Many of the most important functions the tribe contracted to perform, such as fence replacement, invasive plant surveys and prescribed burns, were either not done at all or done so poorly that the work was deemed unacceptable. For example, only 4% of assigned weed infestation surveys were completed as was only a quarter of the fence replacement and maintenance.
“Disaster is a fair term to describe what is going on at Bison Range,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs PEER’s refuge program, noting that the divided management is leaving both sides frustrated. “This experience demonstrates, to paraphrase President Lincoln, a refuge divided cannot stand.”
Judging by the nasty tone in the correspondence between the CSKT and the Fish & Wildlife Service, there appears to be a high level of distrust and low levels of cooperation. The intensity of the disagreements is somewhat surprising in light of the fact that the Service composed a more than a thousand-page protocol covering virtually every aspect of the joint operation under which CSKT has approximately half of the management responsibilities, positions and funding for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges.
The annual agreement was set to lapse this March but has been extended on a provisional basis. The CSKT, however, are demanding more positions and funding, demands that the Fish & Wildlife Service are resisting, a reluctance bolstered by the detailed, highly negative first year performance report card.
Last year’s agreement was opposed by PEER and 40 conservation organizations, including the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Ducks Unlimited, the Wilderness Society, the American Bird Conservancy and the Chicago Zoological Society. The central objection, expressed in a joint letter signed by scores of refuge managers was that “No Refuge Manager, no matter how skilled, could successfully implement this agreement as it is written.”
“If this was the private sector, this contract would not be renewed,” added Hocutt, pointing to, among other problems, the complete loss of the volunteer program support for the refuge, which had provided 4,500 hours of free labor. “Refuges are supposed to be run for the benefit of wildlife, not politics.”