Washington, DC —The Trump administration move last week to nix transfer of the National Bison Range to a local tribe closes one can of worms but threatens to reopen another, according to a letter sent today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Instead of giving the refuge away, Sec. Zinke reportedly told the tribe he would seek an arrangement for tribal management – an approach which Interior has been unsuccessful in achieving for more than a dozen years due to an array of legal barriers, practical difficulties and knotty political disputes.
Shortly after Sec. Zinke announced that he was abandoning the Obama plan for a legislation transfer of the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the CKST issued a statement that Mr. Zinke indicated he would be “exploring Tribal management of the National Bison Range.”
If that is the case, it would be the fourth try at such a pact dating back to 2003. The first agreement was summarily cancelled in December 2006 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service due to a host of CSKT performance-related problems as well as their reported mistreatment of FWS employees. A successor 2008 agreement was invalidated in 2010 by federal court order in a lawsuit brought by PEER. A third attempt emerged after another four years of negotiation but CSKT objections scuttled that draft. The transfer plan surfaced in Obama’s last months as a way to break the impasse blocking a new agreement.
In today’s letter to Zinke, PEER points out that tribal management of a federal refuge violates the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966 and is an illegal delegation of an inherently federal function. In addition, CSKT opposition to external audit of its books resulted in pacts that also violated the Freedom of Information Act, and precluded any detailed evaluation of CSKT performance.
“While we are pleased that Secretary Zinke shelved the transfer, we are concerned that he is repeating the same mistakes that kept Bison Range in limbo for the past 14 years. We don’t need to reinvent a broken wheel,” stated PEER General Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the 2008 lawsuit that invalidated the last CSKT agreement. “Aside from ceding management oversight of the Bison Range, there are ample opportunities for tribal involvement in its operations which should be explored first.”
Another set of factors is also working against any tribal management agreement –
- Tighter Interior budgets under Trump will likely preclude the generous financial terms the CSKT pursued in past agreement attempts;
- A currently pending PEER lawsuit seeks to force FWS to complete a long overdue but statutorily mandated Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Bison Range. This CCP is a three-to-five-year process that should be done before any tribal funding agreements could be considered; and
- The CCP process also requires an environmental analysis as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, an omission FWS now concedes needs to be addressed. Since there is no concrete proposed tribal pact on the table, there is nothing to assess.
“We would urge Interior to staff and develop proper conservation planning for Bison Range first and worry about Montana political considerations later,” added Dinerstein. “The Bison Range desperately needs a return to refuge basics and a break from this marathon tug-of-war.”