Washington, DC — A Bush administration deal giving operational control over the National Bison Range to a Montana tribe for the next three years is illegal, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This precedent-setting arrangement has national repercussions, as another 18 refuges in 8 states, constituting 80% of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, are eligible for similar tribal agreements. So are 57 National Parks in 19 states, including parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Plaintiffs bringing the suit feature four former Bison Range refuge managers whose tenures span 40 years, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and Nathaniel Reed, former Assistant Interior Secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations, as well as a current Bison Range employee whose job is being displaced. The suit cites violations of federal laws which –
- Forbid outsourcing “inherently federal functions” as well as require that operational control of all refuges remain with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service;
- Ensure public access to financial and other records maintained by federal contractors and mandate a full and open review of environmental impacts of major federal actions; and
- Shield federal employees from job loss at the direction of groups outside the federal government and guarantee return rights once the agreement ends.
“The National Bison Range agreement improperly contracts out operation of a major federal facility without adequate oversight to protect taxpayers,” stated PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the action today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “Ceding substantial control over a national refuge requires an act of Congress and cannot legally be given away in a closed-door deal.”
Negotiated with top U.S. Interior Department officials, the Bison Range agreement transfers all jobs, except for a Refuge Manager and deputy, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). This agreement, which takes full effect in January, is a successor to a more limited FY 2005 agreement which the Fish & Wildlife Service summarily rescinded in December 2006 citing a host of performance-related issues on the part of the Tribe, as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT.
“This arrangement seems designed to settle a political debt rather than enhance the refuge mission,” Dinerstein added. “In fact, the agreement itself concedes that wildlife-related services will likely suffer.”
Called the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the National Bison Range is one of the nation’s oldest refuges and celebrated its centennial this past May. .