New Plan for Outsourcing National Bison Range to Tribe

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New Plan for Outsourcing National Bison Range to Tribe

Tribal Takeover Resembles Agreement Invalidated by Federal Court in 2010

Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has unveiled its third attempt at a pact for a Montana tribe to assume operational control over the National Bison Range, considered the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.  The plan has the same legal and practical flaws which led to the abrupt cancellation of the first arrangement back in 2006, and a federal court to terminate its successor in 2010 as part of a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

This new draft agreement transfers all but a few positions at the refuge complex to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) through September 30, 2016.  The draft is now open for a 30-day public comment period on what issues should be included in a formal Environmental Assessment.  The failure to do this type of review caused the last agreement to be struck down by the federal court.  However, the new plan has many of the same legal violations outlined in the PEER suit, including:

  • Outsourcing “inherently federal functions” to an outside entity, the CSKT;
  • Denying public access to financial and other records maintained by federal contractors.  Ironically, the draft agreement does not  reveal the financial terms of federal payments to the tribe; and
  • Subjecting federal employees to job loss at the direction of groups outside the federal government.

“Unfortunately with this new Bison Range contract, the third time is not the charm,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the earlier successful suit on behalf of four former Bison Range refuge managers whose tenures span 40 years, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and Nathaniel Reed, former Assistant Interior Secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations, as well as a Bison Range employee whose job was displaced.  “The basic problem remains that this agreement would improperly contract out major federal functions without adequate oversight to protect taxpayers.”

Among the practical and policy problems that PEER points to in its comments filed today are:

  • Every action by the Refuge Manager is subject to CSKT protest under a paralyzing process that goes all the way to the Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service.  In addition, the CSKT can employ “tribal administrative remedies” to contest Service decisions;
  • The tribe is given a financial incentive to harass employees as the CSKT would be awarded the unused salary and benefits of any Service employee who quits, transfers or is terminated by the CSKT.  Harassment of Service employees was a major factor in ending the agreement in 2006;
  • There is no mechanism to address rudeness or poor treatment of the public by CSKT staff;
  • Whistleblowers would be compromised because all complaints must be turned over “promptly” to the CSKT; and
  • The CSKT would screen not only employees but all volunteers at refuge functions;

The implications of this agreement reach far beyond the National Bison Range.  Another 18 refuges in 8 states, including all of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, are also eligible for similar agreements. These eligible refuges constitute 80% of the land area of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. Similarly, 57 National Park Service units in 19 states are eligible for similar tribal agreements, including national parks such as Redwood, Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and Cape Cod National Seashore.

“The weight of all these issues and the tremendous precedential impact require that a full Environmental Impact Statement be conducted,” Dinerstein added, noting that it seems highly unlikely required reviews could be adequately completed before the projected September 2012 start date.  “If, as before, the Service does not seriously address these concerns and persists in its presumption that this is a done deal, it risks yet another fiasco in which protecting wildlife gets the short end.”

The National Bison Range is one of the nation’s oldest refuges and celebrated its centennial in 2008.

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