Washington, DC — Top officials at the U.S. Interior Department ordered subordinates to arrange the transfer of all jobs and management of the National Bison Range in Montana to a local tribe, according to an agency report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the proposed agreement, National Bison Range, called the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, would be the first such unit in the country to be transferred in its entirety to a tribal government.
This revelation comes within a November 20, 2007 Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) Report of Investigation. The report looks at aspects of the controversial 2005 agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) to take over half the Bison Range jobs. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service terminated that agreement in late 2006 citing non-performance and harassment of refuge staff.
The OIG report concludes that the Interior Department “did exert considerable and unusual influence directing FWS [the Fish & Wildlife Service] to enter into the annual funding agreement with the tribe but such influence was neither improper nor illegal.” The OIG report, which PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, recounts how –
- Top Interior officials directed the Fish & Wildlife Service to increase the number of tribal positions on the refuge, leading to the CSKT assuming complete management control in 2010;
- Former Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, now imprisoned in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbyist scandal, told the then FWS Deputy Director that “it was important to treat the CSKT right in this issue and that the CSKT was one of the tribe that had not supported Cobell”— the multi-billion class action suit to force an accounting of Indian trust funds by Interior; and
- Interior repeatedly overrode FWS recommendations and allowed termination only after complaints of harassment by refuge staff and an assault on the refuge manager by the CSKT tribal chairman.
Currently, Interior is pursuing a new funding agreement with the CSKT. As the OIG report notes, the negotiations have been slowed by the tribe’s insistence on total management control over the refuge.
“Whatever happens at National Bison Range will be purely about politics with the interests of wildlife having precious little to do with the outcome,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that 57 national parks and 18 other wildlife refuges are eligible for similar tribal transfers under Interior’s present stance. “One unresolved question is how the federal government enforces standards once the refuge is under the control of a tribal government.”
The OIG report does examine reports by citizens who reported retaliation by the CSKT after their names and public comments about the agreement were released by Interior to the tribe. The OIG also alludes to “’racial’ tension on both sides of the issue.”
“Ironically, the Inspector General never explored what went wrong with the earlier ill-fated Bison Range agreement or how it should be fixed,” Ruch added. “As a result, the next funding agreement for the Bison Range may blow apart like the last one did.”