Feds Drop Effort to Salvage Bison Range Tribal Pact

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Feds Drop Effort to Salvage Bison Range Tribal Pact

Refuge Has Not Rehired Staff After Tribal Funding Agreement Rescinded

Washington, DC — The U.S. Justice Department has withdrawn its notice of appeal challenging a federal court order striking down its agreement to fund a local tribe to operate Montana’s National Bison Range, according to a legal document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which brought the lawsuit leading to the court order.  This means that employees of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will continue to operate the Bison Range with a skeleton crew but no attempts have been made to bring on more staff for the spring when the century-old refuge stirs back to life.

On September 28, 2010, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia invalidated the agreement that transferred all Bison Range jobs, except for a Refuge Manager and deputy, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).  This agreement had been in effect since January 2010 and was slated to run until September 30, 2011.  This pact is a successor to a more limited 2005 agreement which FWS summarily cancelled in December 2006 citing a host of performance-related deficiencies by the Tribe, as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT.

The federal court ruling rescinded the latest funding agreement because it was executed in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), as Interior pointedly overlooked the very problems that led to the 2006 cancellation of the earlier pact.  The decision by Justice (on behalf of its client the Interior Department) not to pursue an appeal means the judge’s ruling is final and will not be further reviewed. Although the CSKT (which intervened in the case) had also filed a notice of appeal, it has also withdrawn its appeal now that the federal government has thrown in the towel.

“As both the CSKT and Interior were fully aware how controversial this agreement was, their failure to take even elemental legal precautions was surprising.” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of four former Bison Range refuge managers whose tenures span 40 years, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and Nathaniel Reed, former Assistant Interior Secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations, as well as a current Bison Range employee whose job was displaced. “In order for any successor agreement to pass legal muster there must at a minimum be a full Environmental Impact Statement since the agency’s own record shows that there are significant impacts which cannot be ignored.”

Even if Interior were to cure the NEPA violation (a process that could take a year or more), the federal court did not rule on the validity of other claims brought by PEER including that the agreement also violated the Refuge Improvement Act, Intergovernmental Personnel Act and the Freedom of Information Act.  Meanwhile, the Interior Office of Inspector General is still investigating a PEER complaint about tribal management at Bison Range, including bison deaths and injuries, poaching, improper fencing and illegal pesticide applications.

In the months since the district court ruling, however, no new proposed agreement has emerged.  Yet neither has Bison Range moved to fill vacancies with FWS staff – vacancies that need to be filled by spring for the refuge to operate.  Refuge veterans estimate that Bison Range is at least four months behind a normal hiring process.

“Before rushing into yet another ill-conceived agreement, Interior should take a step back to seriously consider these legal constraints, as well as look at what the Inspector General finds,” Dinerstein added, noting that Interior has not yet made a formal announcement on how it plans to proceed.  “In moving forward, what is best for Bison Range and its wildlife should be paramount and not an afterthought.”

PEER has stressed that the precedent-setting Bison Range arrangement has national repercussions.  Another 18 refuges in 8 states, constituting 80% of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, are eligible for similar tribal agreements, as are 57 National Parks in 19 states, including parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore.

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