Washington, DC — It is now up to new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to decide how the government will respond to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) lawsuit aimed at blocking the proposed transfer of the National Bison Range to a local tribe. Called the Crown Jewel of our wildlife refuge system, Montana’s National Bison Range has languished as Obama officials attempted to hand over its management and, in the past year, give the refuge away in its entirety to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CKST).
Filed last May, the PEER suit charges the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) with forgoing statutorily mandated environmental review prior to proposing transfer legislation and failing to complete a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for the refuge due in 2012, as required by law since 1997. In September, FWS claimed that it never authored a give-away plan, despite ample documentary evidence to the contrary. Then two days before the Trump inauguration, FWS filed a Federal Register notice announcing that it would finally begin an environmental review on the Bison Range’s future management but declared that its “preferred” alternative would be to hand the refuge over to the CSKT.
PEER has filed a motion in federal court arguing that FWS’s latest posture functionally concedes the merits of its lawsuit and asks the court for summary judgment in its favor, as well as directing FWS to rescind the Federal Register notice, renounce support for any legislated transfer and commit to a court enforced schedule for completing the long overdue CCP. The U.S. Justice Department has asked for and received a delay for its response until late April in order to ascertain the posture of new Trump appointees.
“Secretary Zinke has repeatedly pledged to oppose the transfer of any federal lands; now he has a prime opportunity to make good on that promise,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, noting that the National Bison Range was established by Sec. Zinke’s conservation icon, President Theodore Roosevelt. “The Service’s maneuvering in the final days of the Obama administration is tantamount to an admission of guilt and so we very much expect to resolve this lawsuit in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, the Bison Range’s staffing and funding has shriveled during its prolonged limbo –
- Today, the refuge has only five full-time staff, a 50% drop since just 2013 and well below the 17 positions it had back in 2003, when negotiations with the CSKT first heated up;
- Current funding is at a record low and less than half of the budgeted funds in 2010; and
- The Service offered to fund as many as 13 refuge positions for the CSKT before negotiations for a co-management plan collapsed in 2015.
“It is high time the National Bison Range is restored as a fully functioning unit of our wildlife refuge system,” added Dinerstein, pointing out that FWS even dropped the Bison Range entirely out of its Staffing Framework issued this past November and then, after the embarrassing omission was pointed out, hastily issued a correction as errata. “We hope the new Interior Secretary will stop treating the National Bison Range as a political football.”