Advocacy Group Sues Over Bison Range Management

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – An advocacy group is suing the Interior Department over management of the National Bison Range in Montana.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is bringing the suit, along with several other plaintiffs. They contend that a management plan signed by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in June is illegal.

Under the agreement, the government will own and operate the range indefinitely but tribal employees will have substantial involvement in day-to-day decisions and operations. The range lies within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The lawsuit says the agreement violates federal laws designed to forbid contractors from having too much control over public lands.

“The National Bison Range agreement improperly contracts out operation of a major federal facility without adequate oversight to protect taxpayers,” said PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the action Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“Ceding substantial control over a national refuge requires an act of Congress and cannot legally be given away in a closed-door deal,” Dinerstein said.

Matt Kales, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver, said he couldn’t comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

“I can tell you, however, that we believe in the document, we believe in the partnership, we believe in the agreement,” Kales said in a telephone interview.

Under the agreement being challenged, the government would own and operate the range indefinitely and the range manager would remain a Fish and Wildlife Service employee. But tribal employees would have substantial involvement in day-to-day decisions and operations.

The idea of joint management of the range has been controversial from the start. Environmentalists have worried tribal management might lead to reduced stewardship, and the tribes have maintained they should manage the land to which they have historical ties.

In late 2006, the Interior Department abruptly canceled an interim plan allowing the CKST a shared role in management after some agency employees complained of mistreatment by the tribes. A few weeks later, the department reversed that decision, saying it would re-establish that relationship in 2007 under certain conditions.

Progress on a deal stalled, though, until Lyle Laverty was sworn in as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in October 2007. A month later, he wrote a memo to regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials directing them to find agreement.

The deal states that the bison range manager, a federal employee, will have final decision-making authority on management direction. But he or she will be advised by a refuge leadership team composed of both tribal and government employees.

Both parties also committed to annual workplace training designed to prevent harassment and discrimination.