Bison Range Transfer Receives Official Burial
New Federal Register Notice Cements Iconic Refuge Staying in Federal Hands
Washington, DC — The Obama-era plan to give away a national wildlife refuge to a local tribe just got a formal death certificate in the form of a Federal Register notice filed today. This new stance addresses the main elements of a pending lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) aiming to restore the National Bison Range as a fully functioning part of the wildlife refuge system.
Just two days before the Trump inauguration, outgoing U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) officials filed a notice in the Federal Register designating legislation to transfer Montana’s National Bison Range in its entirety to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CKST) as its “preferred” alternative. Last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke issued a statement saying that he too opposed the transfer.
Today’s action rescinds that earlier filing and instead announces formulation of a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the refuge, prepared with a full Environmental Impact Statement. The new notice identifies no preferred alternative and seeks comments on the scoping of the new CCP. The PEER federal suit charged FWS with forgoing statutorily mandated environmental review prior to proposing transfer legislation and failing to complete a CCP, which is long overdue, more than five years past the statutory deadline.
“Our suit has largely accomplished its purpose but there are still some very important details to be ironed out,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing out that FWS had noticed a previous attempt to complete a CCP back in 1997 but never followed through. “We appreciate this new posture but now it is time for the Fish & Wildlife Service to put its money where its mouth is by committing sufficient resources to not only complete a good plan but also, and more importantly, to implement that plan.”
The government and PEER have agreed to stay proceedings in the suit for 30 days. Meanwhile, a new process will begin with several unanswered questions, such as –
- Who will lead the development of the refuge plan? The FWS Manual has the refuge manager, as someone most familiar with conditions on the ground, leading the planning team. However, given the political meddling over the past more than a dozen years, little about the Bison Range has been left to the manager who may again be marginalized in key decision-making;
- How long will it take to complete the plan; what resources will be devoted to it and what will be the respective roles of the public and the CSKT; and
- Will the several staff positions that have evaporated from the refuge during the past decade be restored? How many permanent staff will it take both to prepare the CCP and to carry it out after it is completed?
“The Bison Range has been a political football for so long that its refuge mission was lost in the bleachers,” added Dinerstein, “Hopefully, now we can focus on the conservation charter of the National Bison Range and not its politics.”