Last Minute Maneuver on Bison Range Giveaway a Long Shot
PEER Suit Blocking Transfer Bolstered by Reversal and Tacit Admission of Fault
Washington, DC — In the closing hours of the Obama administration, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced it will finally begin environmental review on the future of the National Bison Range but signaled that its “preferred” alternative is to hand this refuge over to a local tribe. This latest stratagem attempts to deflect a pending Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) federal lawsuit but may legally backfire even if it is not scrapped by the incoming Trump administration.
The PEER suit charges FWS with forgoing statutorily required environmental review prior to proposing legislation to transfer the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CKST) and never completing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge as required by law since 1997. In a Federal Register notice posted today, the FWS announces that –
- It will at last begin scoping a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Bison Range and preparing an Environmental Impact Statement for that plan;
- Congressional legislation to transfer the Bison Range to the CSKT is its “preferred management option.” The notice also invites the CSKT to co-write this environmental evaluation; and
- It will not even begin planning for Pablo, Ninepipe, the Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuges and the Northwest Montana Lake County Wetland Management District (all of which are within the Bison Range complex) until some unspecified “later date.”
This current move contradicts the agency’s court pleadings this fall which “deny that they have announced a legislative proposal to transfer the National Bison Range out of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” At the same time, it also appears to implicitly concede the merits of the PEER suit.
“Filing a notice saying that the Service finally intends to follow the law does not defeat a lawsuit to force it to comply with the law by a judicially enforceable date,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, whose earlier lawsuit invalidated a plan for the CSKT to co-manage the refuge. “The haste to squeeze this into the Federal Register just before the Trump inauguration suggests a desperate Hail Mary pass.”
Proposing to formulate a long-term refuge plan whose thrust is to end it continuing as a refuge controverts the entire purpose of the exercise. Further, the transfer requires legislation which is wholly outside the FWS’ control and certainly not subject to its preferences. Nor can the Service guarantee that the CSKT will preserve the bison herd, allow public visitation or operate Bison Range as a refuge once it is handed over — since the notice indicates it will be operated solely “for the benefit of the CSKT.”
“This is like proposing a lesson plan for a class you intend to skip while trying to claim the credit hours,” added Dinerstein. “This move strengthens our hand to immediately ask the court for an order fully restoring the National Bison Range to its status as the Crown Jewel of the Wildlife Refuge System.”