U.S. Fish and Wildlife Disavows Bison Range Transfer Proposal
Retreat Is Attempted Defense for Illegal Promulgation of Refuge Give-Away Plan
Washington, DC — The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is formally denying that it proposed legislation to transfer the National Bison Range to a local tribe, according to the agency’s latest court filing posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite substantial documentation that the agency did indeed make such a proposal, the maneuver seems designed to deflect a PEER lawsuit charging it with forgoing statutorily required environmental review prior to proposing legislation.
In its answer filed on September 21, 2016 to the PEER lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, government lawyers for the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) “deny that they have announced a legislative proposal to transfer the National Bison Range out of the National Wildlife Refuge System.” In this revised version of events, “Director Ashe did not state that FWS ‘initiated’ a transfer of the NBR… FWS’ position was to support the CKST’s [Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes] proposal for legislation.” Even more strained is the assertion that congressional briefings the agency set up were because the delegation “requested that FWS brief them on the history of the NBR [National Bison Range].”
Statements in this filing are flatly contradicted by documents obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act, such as a February 18, 2016 email from Ashe saying that he was “ready to begin work to draft legislation.” Indeed, the agency is withholding drafts of legislation circulated internally. Moreover, even the decision to support legislation triggers the need for review under the National Environmental Policy Act. It was FWS’ violation of this same statute that was the basis of a PEER lawsuit which resulted in a 2010 court order striking down an agreement to co-manage the refuge with the CSKT.
“Orphaning its own plan flies in the face of a paper trail proving the paternity of the Service’s brainchild,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing to the pattern of obfuscation and duplicity by senior FWS officials, particularly Ashe, on not only their plans for Bison Range but also on a host of other policy matters. “This is only the latest example of Dan Ashe speaking with a forked tongue.”
This tactical disavowal may doom the Bison Range transfer plan, which has no congressional sponsor as the end of the session looms. Despite efforts to dispel concerns (such as the CSKT converting it into a gambling casino), the tribe’s latest legislative draft still lacks any enforceable guarantees that the Bison Range continues to operate as a wildlife refuge; that its invaluable bison herd will be maintained intact; or that it remains open to the public. The Bison Range draws more than 200,000 visitors annually, mainly from outside Montana.
One part of the PEER suit the government appears to concede is that the National Bison Range has never had a Comprehensive Conservation Plan. Required by law since 1997, this plan constitutes the primary statutory mandate guiding administration of national wildlife refuges. Nor has FWS yet announced any schedule for preparing this required management plan for Bison Range.
“The Bison Range has suffered from its prolonged state of political limbo,” Dinerstein added, noting that staffing at the Bison Range has been allowed to drop to an all-time low. “PEER will be pressing the next administration to restore Bison Range as the Crown Jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.”