Move to Cede Crown Jewel Refuge to Tribe
Impasse on National Bison Range Partnership Agreement Spurs Handover Scenario
Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has announced that it is now looking to support legislation transferring Montana’s National Bison Range, often called the Crown Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System, to a local Indian tribe, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The move comes after years of failed attempts by the agency to partner with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), and at a time when the future of federal lands in the West is under growing controversy.
Late Friday afternoon messages by both FWS Refuge Chief Cynthia Martinez and Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh indicate that talks have begun about drafting “legislation that would transfer the lands comprising the National Bison Range in Montana to be held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the CSKT.” Displaced federal Bison Range employees are assured that they “will be taken care of” without further explanation except that “options and opportunities are being discussed.”
The move stems from a deadlock after nearly six years of fruitless negotiations between FWS and the CSKT, with Ms. Walsh indicating that “the parties have been unable to come to terms on a mutually-acceptable agreement.” This signals the failure of a third try at reaching a power-sharing pact. A 2005 agreement was summarily cancelled in 2006 by FWS due to a host of performance-related issues on the part of the CSKT, as well as reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the tribal employees. A successor 2008 agreement was invalidated in 2010 by federal court order in a lawsuit brought by PEER.
“Once again, the National Bison Range is a political trading card whose conservation mission is an afterthought,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this latest twist extends the “uncertainty” under which affected federal “employees have worked and livedm,” in the words of the Martinez email.
Relinquishing control of Bison Range raises concerns that extend far beyond this refuge, however:
- While Ms. Martinez claims the move “does not represent a new direction for the Refuge System,” many other tribes have similar legal status covering 18 refuges in 8 states, including all of the Alaska refuges, constituting 80% of the land area of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. Similarly, 57 National Park Service units in 19 states are similarly situated, including parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and Cape Cod National Seashore;
- There is no mention of a means to prevent recurrence of past CSKT performance problems at Bison Range. In 2006, FWS cancelled the first CSKT pact citing wide-ranging failures in bison management and husbandry, biological data collection and other issues; and
- It appears that the Service is rewarding long-standing intransigence by the CSKT in reaching an agreement which would keep the Bison Range in the National Wildlife Refuge System, and in so doing will encourage other tribes to follow the same disengaging playbook.
“Legislation for the CSKT could be expected to spark demands by other tribes for similar handovers of 75 other national parks and refuges,” Ruch added, pointing out that these new talks would also require analysis of impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act, where previous FWS stumbles led to the cancellation of 2008 pact. “This precedent at Bison Range may have profound implications for our entire system of national parks and refuges.”