Washington, DC — The U.S. Interior Department Office of Inspector will investigate tribal management of the National Bison Range, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The action came in response to a PEER complaint citing a host of deficiencies on the iconic century-old refuge in Montana, ranging from poaching and other hunting violations to bison deaths and injuries from inadequate staff training, and from improper fencing to illegal pesticide applications.
Under an agreement that 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, operational lapses as well as environmental violations. In a March 18, 2010 letter, Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote to PEER:
“Our Office of Audits, Inspections and Evaluations will conduct an independent evaluation of the National Bison Range. Should we identify any violations of law, regulation or policy, we will certainly refer such information to the appropriate enforcement or programmatic authority.”
“This is welcome news and we have much more information to share with the Inspector General,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the current agreement with the CSKT at the National Bison Range expires September 30, 2011. “The timing of the Inspector General evaluation may determine whether, or under what conditions, this arrangement continues at Bison Range.”
Another factor affecting the future of National Bison Range is ongoing litigation challenging the legality of the agreement. PEER has brought one federal lawsuit to invalidate the delegation to the CSKT and its co-plaintiffs include 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. A similar suit has also been brought by the Blue Goose Alliance, a group of retired refuge employees.
“In addition to violations, we will urge the Inspector General to review whether provisions of the current agreement are actually being carried out,” Ruch added, pointing, for example, to the failure by the CSKT to ever complete the “2009 Plan of Work” required under the agreement and the absence of a work plan for 2010. “If there is no work plan how can one determine whether the work is going according to plan?”
The issue of tribal management at Bison Range has national implications in that, if upheld, 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 eligible for similar delegation pacts with Indian tribes.