For Immediate Release: Jun 11, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
National Bison Range a Ghost Town This Summer
Visitor Center and Restrooms Closed Two Days a Week at Big Tourist Destination
Washington, DC — One of Montana’s major tourist attractions is operating with so few staff, its visitor center is forced to close two days a week throughout the summer, according to a letter of protest sent today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. These Tuesday and Wednesday closures that also deny access to the visitor center’s public restrooms during its busiest season are unprecedented.
The National Bison Range is the 10th most visited refuge in the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. It attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year, most coming from out-of-state and other countries. It also pumps millions of dollars into the local economy yet the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has cut its staffing to the bone. Today, this refuge has less than a third of the staff it had 15 years ago, resulting in –
- No safety orientations for visitors before they enter the one-way nineteen-mile loop road to view the 400 bison inside the 18,900-acre refuge on days the visitor center is closed;
- One law enforcement officer spread across five refuge units and two wetland management districts over a large area; and
- Damage to refuge natural resources, such as breakdowns in fence maintenance leading to pneumonia wiping out most of the refuge’s prized herd of bighorn sheep and insufficient staff to control invasive weeds that have spread across refuge units.
“For two days a week the Bison Range is open but nobody is home,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the refuge’s public bathrooms are in the visitor center that is locked those two days. “The first thing visitors typically need after a long ride is a trip to the restroom.”
Meanwhile, when it is open the visitor center is staffed by two student interns. In addition, the volunteer program, vital to operating the refuge, was ended last October and not restarted, leading to the dismissal of dozens of community volunteers. Also gone are all refuge-sponsored visitor services programs, including popular programs for area schools. The only on-site supervision on Bison Range comes from a series of managers shuffled in from other states on short-term details.
Staff working on the Bison Range has been reduced to 4.5 staff slots, compared to 23 assigned to Rocky Mountain Arsenal, including five people assigned to manage its visitor services. Rocky Mountain Arsenal is 3,000 acres smaller than the Bison Range but it is located near the Denver regional office of the Fish & Wildlife Service that makes staffing decisions for these refuges. This April, the Gallatin Wildlife Association wrote to Secretary Zinke complaining of ongoing budgetary “abuse” that leaves the Bison Range “ill-equipped to carry out their mission.”
“Bison Range is the victim of a petty bureaucratic vendetta by a Denver regional office that tried to get rid of this refuge and is angry that it failed,” added Ruch, pointing to that office’s 2016 plan to give the refuge entirely away, a move thwarted by a PEER lawsuit and ultimately repudiated by Secretary Zinke. “The current ridiculous situation cries out for some adult supervision, which is what we are seeking from Secretary Zinke.”