MISSOULA – A conservation group sued the Interior Department this week over the government’s plan to manage the National Bison Range on the Flathead Indian Reservation near Missoula.
The Blue Goose Alliance says the proposed partnership with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to manage the wildlife refuge breaks several federal laws and policies and will disrupt nationwide oversight of the area, putting the bison at risk.
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. Environmentalists have worried that tribal management might lead to reduced stewardship.
“If this were allowed to proceed, there would be any number of other entities looking to do the same thing (on other refuges),” Blue Goose President Don Redfearn said. “There’d be no coordination and everyone going their own way.”
Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the wildlife refuge system, said Wednesday they had not seen the Blue Goose lawsuit and could not comment. But Rob McDonald, a spokesman for the confederated tribes, called the claims “colorful and not always fact-based.”
“It’s being run by the (Fish and Wildlife) Service with us as partners,” he said. “It’s still being run to the same standards of the federal refuge system.”
Meanwhile, tribal lawyers last week filed their own request to intervene in another lawsuit between the government and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. That suit raises many of the same concerns as the Blue Goose complaint and also charges that federal employees were unfairly removed from their jobs at the refuge when the partnership deal was imposed.
Fish and Wildlife has filed a formal response to the PEER suit and is working out a schedule of court hearings, according to PEER attorney Paula Dinerstein, who said she doesn’t object to the tribes performing functions on the refuge.
“But where the government has lost the ability to manage the refuge and the budget, to hire and fire, to make environmental determinations — that is not allowed under federal law,” she said. “You can’t delegate that.”
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