Washington, DC — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are now negotiating the complete takeover of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Besides the National Bison Range, the CSKT are reportedly also seeking to assume control over the Swan River and Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuges as well as five waterfowl production areas near Kalispell, Montana.
The negotiations are taking place in the context of the pending decision by Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) whether to cancel or renew last year’s controversial agreement awarding half of the positions and funding for the National Bison Range, and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges to the CSKT. The agreement lapsed in September but has been indefinitely extended on a provisional basis.
Under the CSKT proposal now before FWS Director Dale Hall, the tribes would take over all remaining positions at the refuges as well as management and law enforcement authority by the fall of 2008. The plan would also, for the first time, give the CSKT authorization to enforce refuge hunting and fishing regulations outside reservation lands.
The fact that FWS and DOI are now entertaining the expansion of the CSKT role at National Bison Range is somewhat surprising given the sharply negative evaluation for the first year of joint operations which found that the CSKT failed to perform many functions, did other work incompletely and, in some cases, misplaced funds. In addition, the remaining FWS staff at National Bison Range filed a grievance this fall asserting intolerable working conditions citing a torrent of “safety and ethical violations, harassment, intimidation, and personal slander.” Further, the Interior Department Office of Inspector General has opened a separate probe into problems on the refuge.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service finds itself in a hole but seems perversely determined to keep digging,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “Enlarging this dysfunctional arrangement not only sacrifices refuge values but also rewards precisely the sort of backroom political dealing that voters rejected last week at the ballot box.”
The proposed new arrangement will also more than double the estimated $500,000 FWS is already paying the CSKT for the split operation at National Bison Range. How FWS will secure these additional funds is unclear since the National Wildlife Refuge System is already eliminating slots, leaving scores of refuges completely un-staffed (on “Preservation Status”) and struggling with a $3.1 billion maintenance backlog.
Significantly, the negotiations for ceding the entire National Bison Range Complex and other refuge units, (including the McGregor Meadows, Smith Lake, Batavia, Flathead and Blasdel Waterfowl Production Areas) have taken place without any public notice. Last year an array of conservation groups and more than 100 refuge managers voiced objections to the National Bison Range agreement. One major element of the concern is that the National Bison Range agreement may become the model for 34 national parks (including nearby Glacier National Park) and 31 national wildlife refuges that are eligible for similar deals under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act Amendments of 1994.
“Sadly, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is stumbling ahead on an ad hoc basis without any policy to guide its negotiations,” added Hocutt, pointing to the failure of the agency to adopt a national policy governing agreements under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, as many have urged. “In the absence of a coherent policy, the needs of the wildlife which depend on our refuge system take a backseat to political expediency.”