Washington, DC — The National Bison Range, called the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, is at the center of a political tug-of-war over whether to transfer its management to a local Indian tribe, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Prominent Democratic committee chairs are themselves at odds, pressing diametrically opposite courses of action upon Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
In December 2004, over the objections of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service refuge managers, political appointees in the Interior Secretary’s office imposed a one-year agreement turning over half the positions, functions and funding of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). Problems with the arrangement escalated until December 11, 2006, when the Fish & Wildlife Service cancelled the deal with the tribes citing both non-performance and harassment of refuge staff.
Despite this termination by the Fish & Wildlife Service, its parent agency, the Interior Department, announced its intention to negotiate a new pact, but nearly 11 months later talks remain at an impasse.
Meanwhile, Congressional leaders have weighed in on both sides. On one hand, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, joined by its ranking Republican, Rep. Don Young of Alaska has urged Interior to satisfy CSKT demands. In a November 2, 2007 letter, Reps. Rahall and Young wrote “we think it makes sense for the Tribes to manage the local Bison Range programs…”
Squaring off against Rep. Rahall is an even more senior Democrat, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a seminal influence on natural resource policy. In a November 7, 2007 letter to Secretary Kempthorne, Rep. Dingell insisted that “The Department’s transfer of management responsibilities at the Complex is unsanctioned by law and unprecedented.”
Rep. Rahall is also behind legislation to make it very difficult for Interior to reject any tribal offers to take over national parks and refuges and virtually impossible to cancel those funding agreement once executed. While supporting transfer of all refuge functions to tribes, Rep. Rahall has tried to deflect concerns about his new legislation by insisting, “No unit of the National Park System would be turned over to an Indian tribe by this bill.” The legal basis for his paradoxical distinction, however, is not apparent.
“In 2004, the politicos at Interior opened a Pandora’s Box and do not know how to close it,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that an Interior Inspector General report on the matter is reportedly finished but not yet released. “The first question should be ‘What was wrong with the Bison Range agreement?’ followed by ‘How can it be fixed?’”
A key issue is how to guarantee effective management of federal lands by tribal governments which insist that their sovereign status should exempt them from federal rules and public oversight. Similarly, it is unclear how complaints by members of the public about tribal operations would be resolved and by whom. Significantly, the Rahall legislation, heard in his committee last week, excuses tribes from sanctions for non-performance or misconduct except in the most extreme circumstances.
“Lost in all the fuss is what is best for the wildlife and what furthers the mission of our national network of refuges,” Ruch added. “Regardless of whether it is federal, state, local or tribal – who manages parks and refuges matters far less than how well those lands are managed.”