Washington, DC — Under its tribal management, the National Bison Range in Montana is plagued with a host of law enforcement, environmental and management deficiencies, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) in calling for the U.S. Interior Department Office of Inspector General to investigate conditions on the iconic refuge.
Pursuant to an agreement which went into effect in January 2009, the U.S. Interior Department transferred operation of the entire National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). A previous agreement for joint operation of the Bison Range with the CSKT was cancelled in late 2006 due to performance-related issues, as well as reported harassment of federal refuge employees by the CSKT.
Records obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that several of the previous difficulties seem to be recurring in the current arrangement, including:
- Inadequate law enforcement presence to respond to acts of arson, poaching and illegal hunting, such as use of toxic shot and spotlighting wildlife. Removal of Fish & Wildlife personnel from the refuge lessened law enforcement presence;
- Repeated fence openings allowing the refuge’s bison to wander. In one 2009 incident, 150 bison had to be rounded up and returned to pasture; and
- Records show CSKT workers are routinely violating pesticide label instructions, such as to avoid spraying in high winds, in herbicide applications to combat invasive plants. Contrary to protocol, CSKT employees cannot show where, how much or under what conditions pesticides are applied.
“There needs to be an outside, independent review of what is actually happening on Bison Range,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization, along with four former Bison Range managers, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and a former Assistant Interior Secretary, as well as a refuge employee whose job was displaced, is suing to invalidate the delegation to the CSKT. “The only official reports come from CSKT employees who need to put a happy face even on calamities.”
One August 11, 2009 e-mail notes that the 2009 Plan of Work required under the refuge agreement is “embarrassingly long past due.” In fact, no such plan appears in the documents obtained by PEER, suggesting that it has yet to be completed. Another memo depicts a leaderless malaise: “Seems like everyone is going a different direction with little understanding of what or why they are doing it.”
“One of the main concerns is that the CSKT, as a sovereign nation, may feel no need to be accountable once the federal check clears,” Ruch added, noting that more than three-quarters of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System and nearly 60 National Parks, stretching from Redwood to Cape Cod National Seashore, are all eligible for the same type of delegation agreements with Indian tribes. “If this Bison Range arrangement is an experiment, then that is all the more reason why it should be monitored closely.”