Lawsuit Tackles National Bison Range Give-Away Legislation
Agency Failed to Conduct Mandatory Environmental Analysis when Submitting Bills
Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has not done the environmental analysis required by law before sponsoring legislation to turn the National Bison Range over to local tribes, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The suit aims to force FWS to ascertain potential impacts before proceeding any further with the first major surrender of a national wildlife refuge in American history.
In February, FWS announced that it was pursuing legislation to transfer Montana’s National Bison Range, often called the Crown Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). As described in emails and other records PEER has obtained, the bill would –
- Give the entire refuge complex, its buildings (including a new $650,000 maintenance facility) and prized bison herd totaling nearly $100 million in value to the CSKT without any compensation. Ironically, federal taxpayers had previously paid twice to purchase the refuge’s 18,000 acres;
- Contain no requirement that the CSKT maintain the Bison Range as a refuge or admit the public. The refuge attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year, the vast majority (83%) come from out-of-state or abroad and pump an estimated $12.5 million into the local economy; and
- Make no provision for the fate of the Range’s unique bison herd, considered by many as vital to the future of the bison –now the nation’s official mammal – as a healthy native species.
“The law requires federal agencies to think through the consequences of proposals before launching them,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who brought the litigation that struck down a joint management plan FWS developed with the CSKT in 2010 for its failure to comply with the same statute at the heart of the new suit. “The inability or unwillingness of the Service to do its homework on the Bison Range has kept this century-old refuge in political limbo for more than a decade.”
The suit also takes the Service to task for failing to ever develop a conservation plan for the Bison Range despite a statutory mandate dating back to 1997 that it do so. Virtually every one of the other 560 national wildlife refuges has such a plan to guide their operations to best accomplish their purpose.
Joining the PEER suit as co-plaintiffs are former refuge managers and employees of the Bison Range and top FWS officials with a combined nearly 250 years of experience, as well as a leading citizen activist.
“The Bison Range is a major ecological asset that is being tossed away without consideration,” Dinerstein added, noting that the National Bison Range is the 10th most visited refuge among 563 NWRs nationwide, creating 169 jobs in Montana. “If we succeed, this lawsuit will not only keep the National Bison Range as a wildlife refuge but also restore its crown jewel luster.”