For awhile, it seemed as though the controversy a pact with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to share management of the National Bison Range in Montana with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had died down. Sadly, that’s not the case – and tribal jobs could be lost in the process. Vince Devlin of the Missoulian has the story:
Volunteer cowboys drive a group of the herd into a corral during the 2006 bison roundup at the National Bison Range in Moiese, Mont. This year's roundup is scheduled to take place next week amid renewed controversy over management of the range, now shared by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. (Photo by Linda Thompson/Missoulian)
MOIESE – The smoldering dispute over the National Bison Range re-erupted in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom Tuesday.
There, a judge rescinded a funding agreement between the Department of Interior and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, just days before the annual roundup on the Bison Range is scheduled to take place.
U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling appears to put approximately 10 CSKT employees out of work at the National Wildlife Refuge, probably as early as Wednesday.
The judge said that the Department of Interior violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it entered into a second funding agreement with the tribes more than two years ago, by failing to formally invoke a NEPA-required “categorical exclusion” for the newest pact.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which brought the lawsuit, heralded the judge’s decision and called on Interior to rapidly return U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel to the Bison Range jobs.
“We expect the government to act quickly to put Fish and Wildlife Service staff back in place to repair the ongoing damage to the Bison Range,” said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel for PEER.
PEER has long alleged workers employed by the tribes at the Bison Range have failed to do their jobs properly, and reiterated that again Tuesday. In a news release from spokeswoman Kristin Stade, the organization said that "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."
That analysis did not sit well with the tribes, which have vehemently denied PEER's allegations over the years.
"Our political opponents have taken this opportunity to smear the name of the tribes once again," CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said. "The judge made her decision based on an environmental procedural rule regarding federal actions. The tribes didn't invite the problems that the judge responded to."
The court, McDonald also noted, "did not prohibit or discourage these types of partnerships."
PEER has vigorously opposed the partnership at the century-old Bison Range for years, arguing it sets a precedent that could leave 80 percent of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and 57 national parks in 19 states, under similar agreements with other Indian tribes.
"The Interior Department should go back to the drawing board rather than try to resurrect this flawed agreement," Dinerstein said. "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."
A host of Fish and Wildlife personnel, including Bison Range manager Jeff King, referred questions from the Missoulian about Kollar-Kotelly's ruling to the U.S. Justice Department.
There, spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle issued a one-sentence statement.
"We're still reviewing the court's decision," it said, "and consulting internally within the Justice Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the practical ramifications of this decision."
King did answer one question, however. As of Tuesday afternoon, he said, the annual bison roundup scheduled for next week is still a go, with a final decision likely to be reached on Wednesday.
CSKT chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran said the tribes will also decide what course to take in the wake of Kollar-Kotelly's 37-page ruling.
"We are extremely disappointed with the decision," Moran said, "and will be exploring our options, along with the (Fish and Wildlife) Service. We want to avoid another disruptive de-staffing at the Bison Range."
The last time the plug was pulled on a funding agreement, in 2006, it was the Fish and Wildlife Service that did the pulling amid heated allegations from both sides. FWS employees charged they were harassed by CSKT, while the tribes accused the Fish and Wildlife Service of sabotaging their work in an effort to protect federal jobs.
The Department of Interior, which oversees the FWS, then stepped in and ordered the new funding agreement, which has been in place since 2008.
"The past 18 months have been a great success story of a true partnership on the ground," McDonald said. "We ultimately expect this to keep going forward."
PEER brought the lawsuit on behalf of four former Bison Range managers, a former chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, a former assistant Interior secretary, and a Bison Range employee whose job was displaced.
PEER continues to assert in its news releases that the latest funding agreement had ceded control of the Bison Range to the Indian tribes, even though the refuge remained a part of the National Wildlife System and under control of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
King, the manager, is an FWS employee, as is one of the two deputy managers.
Tribal jobs lost in Tuesday's ruling include the other deputy manager, biologists, maintenance workers and Bison Range staff.
Tags: buffalo post, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, CSKT, Fish and Wildlife Service, Flathead Indian Reservation, FWS, Gwen Florio, Interior Department, National Bison Range, National Environmental Policy Act, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility