Washington, DC — A federal court today rescinded an agreement awarding control over the National Bison Range to a Montana tribe for violating a key environmental statute in a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, employees of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will resume operation of the Bison Range, a century-old preserve called the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Today’s court order is just the latest twist in the troubled history of Indian-Interior Department relations on National Bison Range. The Bison Range agreement which Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia invalidated today had transferred all Bison Range jobs, except for a Refuge Manager and deputy, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
This pact is a successor to a more limited FY 2005 agreement which the Fish & Wildlife Service summarily rescinded in December 2006 citing a host of performance-related issues on the part of the Tribe, as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT.
Indeed, it was the failure by the Interior Department to analyze the potential for a repetition of these earlier problems under the latest agreement that led to a finding that the pact violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Among the issues the court found were improperly overlooked were inadequate care and feeding of the bison and a host of critical tasks left undone or improperly performed. Currently, the Interior Office of Inspector General is investigating a PEER complaint detailing tribal management at the Bison Range, including poaching and other hunting violations, bison deaths and injuries from inadequate staff training, improper fencing and illegal pesticide applications.
“We are most gratified that this agreement has been rescinded,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of four former Bison Range refuge managers whose tenures span 40 years, a former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. “We expect the government to act quickly to put Fish & Wildlife Service staff back in place to repair the ongoing damage to the Bison Range.”
Judge Kollar-Kotelly ordered that the current funding agreement for the CSKT, which runs through September 30, 2011, “be set aside and rescinded,” thus directing CSKT personnel to vacate the refuge to be replaced by FWS employees. The government could seek to stay this order if it appeals or it could undertake NEPA review in order to salvage the current pact. Left undecided by the court, however, were contentions that the CSKT agreement also violated the Refuge Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
“The Interior Department should go back to the drawing board rather than try to resurrect this flawed agreement,” Dinerstein said, noting that this precedent-setting arrangement has big repercussions. Another 18 refuges in 8 states, constituting 80% of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, are eligible for similar tribal agreements, as are 57 National Parks in 19 states, including parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore. “For these tribal-federal agreements we need a model agreement that protects core resources and the integrity of our national parks and refuges. The Bison Range experience underlines the flaws of an ad hoc approach to what requires a national strategy.”