Washington, DC — A deal set to take effect this month allows a Montana tribe to assume operational control over the National Bison Range, considered the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The plan is studded with legal and practical failings which contributed to the abrupt cancellation of an earlier arrangement, according to congressional comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
This new agreement is a successor to a somewhat similar FY 2005 agreement which the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service summarily rescinded in December 2006 citing a host of performance-related issues on the part of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT. The new agreement, negotiated with top U.S. Interior Department officials, transfers all jobs, except for a Refuge Manager and deputy, to the CSKT.
“This agreement reads as if it was written by tribal lawyers because on every issue it appears the CSKT got what it wanted,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs the PEER refuge program. “This deal settles a political score but does nothing to benefit wildlife, the refuge or the refuge system. Instead, it aims to minimize damage and disruption rather than enhance services.”
Today is the last day to submit comments to congressional oversight committees before the agreement becomes final later this month. PEER argues that none of the earlier problems has been solved:
- There is no mechanism to address rudeness or poor treatment of the public by CSKT staff. In addition, tribal records will not be subject to scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act;
- Every action by the Refuge Manager is subject to CSKT protest under a numbing five-step process in which any issue “unacceptable to the CSKT” may be elevated, though a four-stage process, to the Deputy Secretary of Interior (the number two top official), followed by further appeals; and
- Federal employees who wish to stay on the Bison Range must work under CSKT supervision and can be removed by the tribe, even over the objections of FWS. Moreover, as in the prior pact, CSKT is awarded the salary and benefits of every federal employee who quits or is terminated.
“Interior sold out its people by, in essence, placing a bounty on civil servants’ heads,” Hocutt added. “What we have is a contract in which the contractor can’t be held accountable for malfeasance or abuse.”
PEER also notes that whistleblowers may be compromised because all complaints must be turned over “promptly” to the CSKT. In addition, performance requirements would be negotiable and the CSKT can ask the Interior Secretary to waive federal standards without public notice.
The implications of this agreement resound far beyond the National Bison Range. According to official Interior determinations, 57 National Park Service units in 19 states are listed as eligible for similar tribal agreements, including national parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Similarly, another 18 refuges in 8 states, including all of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, are also eligible for similar agreements. These eligible refuges constitute 80% of the land area of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System.