Washington, DC — Even though Congress has yet to act on the proposed agreement to turn half of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge in Montana over to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), refuge workers are being asked to relocate, change jobs or resign, according to an agency memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Congress has until March 15th to veto the agreement but Bison Range employees were given notices last week and must indicate their choice by February 18th.
Under the pending agreement, more than half of the positions (10 out of 18) positions at Bison Range will be taken over by the Tribe. A memo distributed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Regional Office in Denver lays out essentially three options for those employees deemed “affected”:
- Agree to be reassigned to another National Wildlife Refuge elsewhere in the country, if vacancies exist;
- Go to work for the CSKT; or
- Resign or be fired.
The option of working for the CSKT came with options of working as a tribal employee or working as a federal employee under tribal supervision but the CSKT has not met with the current refuge employees to explain whether either is realistic. In addition, Bison Range employees remain unsure whether they would work in their current position or be reassigned by the tribe. Moreover, the duration of the tribal placement of federal employees is up in the air, with questions as to how many years the Bison Range employees could count on remaining under tribal supervision.
“This is a heck of a way to treat folks,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs PEER’s refuge program, noting that employees are in the dark as to which options are viable and for how long. “It is totally premature to begin uprooting families without waiting for Congress to speak.”
This agreement has been a bone of contention for most of the past year, spurring a protest letter signed by nearly half of the refuge managers in the country and drawing the opposition of more than a score of conservation groups, ranging from Ducks Unlimited to the Defenders of Wildlife. Closed-door negotiations between Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Paul Hoffman, a former Dick Cheney aide, and the CSKT produced a deal that awards approximately half of the management, jobs and funding for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges to the Tribes. Signed in mid-December, the agreement takes effect in 90 days unless vetoed by Congress.
The Department of Interior has listed 31 wildlife refuges and 34 national parks where it will entertain similar offers from tribes to take over operations but has yet to develop any overall policy to guide its dealings. Instead, political appointees at Interior negotiate individual deals on an ad hoc basis.
“The principal asset of the National Wildlife Refuge System is its people but, at Bison Range, this invaluable asset of dedicated employees is being treated like an expendable commodity that can be traded or discarded without care,” Hocutt added.