Washington, DC — An effort by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to craft a five-year agreement for cooperation at the National Bison Range Complex with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) has come to naught, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Instead of negotiating a cooperative agreement, the CSKT has gone over the heads of the Fish & Wildlife Service to political appointees in the Interior Department to obtain a deal ceding management control and a guaranteed federal payroll to the tribes.
In an April 27, 2007 letter released by PEER, Dean Rundle, Regional Refuge Supervisor for the Fish & Wildlife Service, laid out terms for a five-year cooperative agreement at National Bison Range to Clayton Matt, head of the CSKT Natural Resources Department. Rundle proposed to fill any “vacant, non-supervisory permanent positions and any Term or Temporary positions” at the refuge with CSKT personnel. In addition, the CSKT “would be involved as a full partner in preparing annual work plans for management of NBR [National Bison Range] and its satellite refuges.”
One major point of disagreement has been the insistence by the Fish & Wildlife Service that “all work performed at the NBR would be supervised by the Service’s Refuge Manager.” On December 11, 2006, the Service cancelled a previous, troubled 18 month-long arrangement with the tribes citing both non-performance and harassment of refuge employees.
In recent weeks, the CSKT has hired a public relations firm, published full page ads and made several trips back to Washington, D.C. to meet with Interior officials. This concerted tribal campaign appears to be making some headway in that an Interior draft agreement granting the tribe management control and an increased number of guaranteed positions is now working its way through the bureaucracy.
“Right now, the entire National Wildlife Refuge System is being cut to the bone, so throwing another million dollars into the National Bison Range to meet CSKT demands means that some other refuges will be cut,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program, pointing out that payments being negotiated by the CSKT are beyond the current budgeted levels. “If we are going to be spending more of the taxpayers’ dollars it should be going to improve refuge operations, not for political payoffs.”
At the same time, an unusual joint grievance by current and former refuge employees charging abuse and intimidation during the now terminated joint-CSKT operation has been resolved in the employees’ favor. In addition, an investigation by the Interior Office of Inspector General into the role political influence played in the genesis and collapse of the prior CSKT agreement is complete with a report due out shortly.
“This Interior Department has been justly criticized for overruling Fish & Wildlife professional staff to the detriment of wildlife – which is precisely what is happening now at National Bison Range,” Hocutt added, noting that a new Service program for NBR bison to serve as the feeder herd for improving the genetic quality of bison herds throughout the nation is at a critical, formative stage. “Rather than blunder into another disastrous shotgun marriage, Interior should wait to see what its Inspector General has to say.”
To further complicate matters, the Interior Department has been delaying enactment of a national policy to guide future agreements negotiated under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the authority for joint arrangements at the National Bison Range. Another 18 refuges and 34 national parks (including Glacier) are eligible for similar agreements but have no policy to guide them.