Washington, DC — Often called the Crown Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Montana’s National Bison Range has been roiled over the past decade by efforts to turn over much of its operations to a local tribe. However, the latest tribal takeover plan suffers from the same defects that led to the failure of the prior two pacts, according to comments from refuge employees posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
After more than four years of behind the scenes negotiations, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has yet to officially unveil its Draft Environmental Analysis (EA) for a new five-year Annual Funding Agreement (AFA) to transfer most Bison Range jobs and functions to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). This would be the third try at such a pact. A 2005 agreement was summarily cancelled in December 2006 by FWS due to a host of performance-related issues on the part of the Tribes, as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT. A successor 2008 agreement was invalidated in 2010 by federal court order in a lawsuit brought by PEER.
The court rescinded the 2008 AFA due to the failure of FWS to assess impacts the AFA has on the resources managed by the National Bison Range as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. This new Draft EA is supposed to correct this legal defect but comments from current National Bison Range staff, including several CSKT members, suggest there is still much more work to do.
In consolidated comments dated May 19, 2014, the employees explain that “We are very concerned about making any comments individually….We worry about retaliation both by the Service and the Tribes” but are frustrated at being shut out of the negotiations on an AFA that they believe will:
- Create an Unworkable Structure. “This proposed agreement is almost exactly like the one in 2008 and the fundamentals of that agreement didn’t work – even though this document says it worked well.”
- Ignore Resource Management Realities. “There is no analysis on refuge operations….The EA does not analyze how the changes in staff will affect the resource.”
- Encourage Ruinous Turnover. The short term and uncertain nature of these jobs make it hard to hire “experienced staff” from the CSKT. “In fact, several employees, particularly in leadership positions, had no affiliation with the Tribes.”
“Their own employees say that the Service has not learned from its past mistakes,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the earlier 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 under both Nixon and Ford. “As before, this new agreement will adversely affect Bison Range operations in ways we believe are prohibited by law.”
The employees also express consternation that FWS has rejected adoption of a national policy to govern AFAs leaving this agreement to be fashioned on an ad hoc basis. This concern is magnified by the fact that the National Bison Range is one of only three out of 560 refuges lacking a statutorily required Comprehensive Conservation Plan.
“Without a guiding conservation plan, this agreement is driven by politics and not resource needs,” Dinerstein added, noting that four years of negotiations appear to have centered on tribal prerogatives rather than resource protections. “As one employee comment put it: ‘the negotiated AFA is counter to a true partnership – it feels more like a takeover.’”