Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service censored key findings in its performance evaluation of the first year of split operations of the National Bison Range Wildlife Refuge with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The deleted portions of the evaluation contained warnings of deteriorating relations and communication barriers that are the subject of a grievance recently filed against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service by the remaining staff at the refuge.
“The Fish & Wildlife Service decided to close its ears to the alarms being sounded at the National Bison Range,” stated Grady Hocutt, a former long-time refuge manager who directs PEER’s refuge program. “How will these communication breakdowns be addressed if the Service does not admit their existence?”
The text of the original evaluation summary (dated March 1, 2006) had been cut by nearly half when it was finally released to PEER in July by the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition to escalating management problems, censored sections described –
- Postponement of priority projects on the refuge, including assessing plans for coping with Chronic Wasting Disease, mapping the spread of invasive plants and finishing shoreline restoration work;
- The complete loss of the volunteer program support for the refuge, which had provided 4,500 hours of free labor and now requires the use of paid staff; and
- An array of hidden costs with implementation of the controversial agreement that had to be absorbed by cuts in refuge programs.
Notwithstanding the extensive redactions, the final evaluation was hardly glowing, finding that the CSKT failed to perform many agreed upon functions, did other work incompletely, failed to provide qualified personnel and, in some cases, misplaced funds.
On September 19, 2006, the FWS staff of the National Bison Range, a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System in Montana, filed an unusual joint grievance that working conditions have become intolerable due to a torrent of “safety and ethical violations, harassment, intimidation, and personal slander,” according to agency management. The issues cited by the employees closely track the issues that FWS removed from the March evaluation.
FWS has retained an outside investigator who is preparing a report for regional officials concerning the employee grievance. In addition to the employee grievance, the Interior Department Office of Inspector General has opened a separate probe into problems on the National Bison Range, with investigators now interviewing FWS employees.
Last year’s precedent-setting agreement awarded the CSKT with approximately half of the positions and funding for the National Bison Range and the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo National Wildlife Refuges. Among the problems raised by the censored evaluation is FWS failed to establish any clear guidance, standards or policies, requiring endless negotiation with CSKT over every issue no matter how trivial.
“There has been an abject failure of agency leadership leaving its own people to cope with an untenable situation,” added Hocutt, pointing to political intervention that rammed the agreement through over the objections of an array of conservation groups and FWS employees, including a letter of protest signed by more than 100 refuge managers. “In order to move forward, we need a lot more candor and a lot less politics.”
View the original Bison Range evaluation with excised portions highlighted
(allow a few moments to download)