New twist in efforts to transfer Bison Range to Indian tribes

New twist in efforts to transfer Bison Range to Indian tribes

Source: Missoulian
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VINCE DEVLIN vdevlin@missoulian.com

MOIESE – With the publishing of Thursday’s Federal Register, the fate of the National Bison Range veered down a new path.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice of its intent to prepare a comprehensive conservation plan for the wildlife refuge, accompanied by an environmental impact statement.

The lack of both are at the heart of a lawsuit that aims to derail FWS plans to support federal legislation to transfer the Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The group that sued to stop that from happening because there was no comprehensive conservation plan or environmental impact statement decried the agency’s announcement that it now intends to provide them.

“Filing a notice saying that the Service finally intends to follow the law does not defeat a lawsuit to force it to comply with the law by a judicially enforceable date,” said Paula Dinerstein, senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The haste to squeeze this into the Federal Register just before the Trump inauguration suggests a desperate Hail Mary pass.”

Meantime, the tribes, and others who support placing the Bison Range in trust for CSKT, said they welcomed Thursday’s news.

“We look forward to cooperating with the Service in its preparation of a comprehensive conservation plan, including evaluation of Bison Range restoration,” CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley said. “The tribes look forward to the day when we can extend our record of natural resources management to the Bison Range, including its bison that descend from the herd managed by tribal members a century ago.”

The National Wildlife Federation, one of several conservation organizations that back the transfer to the tribes, was also happy with the FWS announcement.

The federation “believes this planning process will show that tribal management of the Bison Range is a win-win-win proposition,” said Steve Woodruff, senior policy and communications manager. “Good for wildlife, good for the public and good for the tribes.”

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The notice said the comprehensive conservation plan and environmental impact statement would include a minimum of three alternatives to be considered: continuing with the Fish and Wildlife Service in charge, transferring the Bison Range to the tribes, or returning to an annual funding agreement that splits duties between FWS and the tribes.

It lists the second alternative, transferring the refuge to the tribes, as the preferred outcome. That didn’t sit well with PEER.

“Proposing to formulate a long-term refuge plan whose thrust is to end it continuing as a refuge converts the entire purpose of the exercise,” PEER said in a prepared statement.

The statement went on to say there would be no guarantee the tribes would preserve the bison herd, operate the land as a wildlife refuge or allow public visitation – claims the tribes have already labeled false.

CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald has said that PEER “intentionally ignores the fact that legislation to restore the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the tribes would require continued bison conservation, as well as continued public access.”

The tribes have already prepared, taken public comment on, and revised draft legislation that would return federal trust ownership of the Bison Range to CSKT.

In addition to the National Wildlife Federation, the move has gained the support of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Headwaters Montana, Montana Conservation Voters, and the Mission Mountain, Flathead and Five Valleys chapters of the Audubon Society.

“Montanans have a lot to be proud of with the Bison Range and the role it and, especially, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes played in rescuing America’s national mammal from extinction,” Woodruff said. “But that success has been built on a century-old injustice involving the manner in which the government obtained land for the Bison Range. The FWS planning initiative is a good opportunity to write a new, positive chapter pointing the way to a good future for the Bison Range and all who value it.”

PEER has vociferously opposed any tribal involvement in the refuge for years.

Thursday’s move by the Fish and Wildlife Service “contradicts the agency’s court pleadings this fall which deny that they have announced a legislative proposal to transfer the National Bison Range out of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” the group said. “At the same time, it also appears to implicitly concede the merits of the PEER suit.”

“This is like proposing a lesson plan for a class you intend to skip while trying to claim the credit hours,” Dinerstein said. “This move strengthens our hand to immediately ask the court for an order fully restoring the National Bison Range to its status as the crown jewel of the Wildlife Refuge System.”

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A decade ago, the tribes and the Fish and Wildlife Service were locked in a bitter feud over CSKT’s desire to have a role at the refuge, which is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

An initial annual funding agreement that put FWS and tribal employees side-by-side on the Bison Range ended in acrimony, with the government locking the tribal employees out and requiring them to turn in their gear as armed federal agents stood guard.

A second agreement, from 2008 to 2010, appeared to be working just fine, but a PEER lawsuit similar to the current one ended it, when a judge agreed an environmental assessment should have been completed before the agreement was signed.

CSKT’s status at the refuge remained in limbo until a year ago, when FWS officials – in a surprise move – said they would back legislation to transfer the Bison Range to the tribes if such legislation were introduced in Congress.

How Friday’s inauguration and transfer of power to a new administration may affect the Bison Range remains to be seen, but if Montanan Congressman Ryan Zinke is confirmed as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of the Interior, he’ll have a lot of say.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of the federal agencies the Interior secretary oversees.