Washington, DC — The staff of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana has filed an unusual joint grievance contending that working conditions have become intolerable due to a torrent of “safety and ethical violations, harassment, intimidation, and personal slander,” according to an agency letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The grievance is just the latest sign of breakdowns at the refuge which has been operating under a precedent-setting agreement turning half of the operations over to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
“Federal employees should not be subjected to racial or sexual intimidation and should expect their own agency management to do more than just stand by and watch,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Fish & Wildlife Service has put its own people in an untenable position by signaling to the tribes that they would get to keep any jobs that became vacant – in essence putting targets on the backs of refuge staff and creating an incentive for harassment.”
The controversial tribal-refuge split funding agreement was signed last year despite objections from more than 100 national wildlife refuge managers that it was an unworkable arrangement. Despite a thousand-page protocol that covers virtually every aspect of the split operation for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges, the transition has been far from smooth.
This July, the first annual performance evaluation showed that the tribes 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 key tasks the tribes contracted to perform, such as fence replacement and prescribed burns, were either not done or done so poorly that the work was deemed unacceptable. In addition, the refuge lost its corps of volunteers who had provided 4,500 hours of free labor each year.
In their grievance, the refuge employees have asked that the split-refuge management agreement be rescinded or renegotiated. In response, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) Deputy Regional Director Jay Slack indicated the agency would contract with an outside party to conduct an investigation. Rather than contract with another federal agency, as is conventionally done, FWS has retained a firm from California.
”Agency managers have been aware of the problems for months; they do not need to hire sleuths from California to know what is going on,” Ruch added, noting that the agreement was facilitated by Montana’s own U.S. Senator Conrad Burns who chairs the appropriations subcommittee providing the FWS budget. “Somebody in a position of responsibility needs to bite the bullet and make a decision.”
The annual agreement was set to lapse this past September but has been extended indefinitely by FWS on a provisional basis after the CSKT refused to sign a renewal of the agreement. The CSKT are seeking additional positions and funding, leading to a complete take-over of all refuge operations.