By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a new agreement to share management of the National Bison Range with American Indian tribes claiming historical and cultural ties to the land, following the failure of two previous deals in the past decade.
The 29-square-mile range is part of the national refuge system and located within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have sought to manage the government-run range for the past 20 years.
“We go into this with a positive attitude and the expectation that we’ll find a partnership that will work very well,” tribal spokesman Rob McDonald said Tuesday.
Under the proposed agreement, the tribes would be responsible for running the range’s biology, fire management, maintenance and visitor services programs, with the government-employed refuge manager signing off on all plans.
The refuge manager, deputy manager and law enforcement officer would still be federal employees, but the other staff would be overseen by a tribal wildlife refuge specialist, according to an environmental assessment released Tuesday.
The operations would be run by a leadership team including the top Fish and Wildlife employees and the tribal wildlife refuge specialist, with the refuge manager having the last word if there are disagreements. But the tribes could invoke a process to resolve disputes.
The agreement would cover the complex that includes the bison range, Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge, Pablo National Wildlife Refuge and nine waterfowl production areas.
The environmental assessment is open to public comment for 30 days, after which the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director will make a decision that is subject to congressional approval.
The range was created in 1908 to house a bison herd from the American Bison Society at a time when the animals were nearly extinct in the West. An estimated 350 bison roam in the enclosed area.
In 1993, the tribes said they should be managing the range because of a 1976 law allowing the Interior Department to contract with tribes for programs and services that otherwise would be done by government workers. Initial talks were set aside in 1996 amid strong opposition by non-Indian residents in the area.
Negotiations resumed in 2003, and the tribes signed an agreement the following year. It fell apart when a review found some work wasn’t being done properly, which the tribes disputed.
A new agreement came in June 2008 that led to lawsuits alleging the deal was illegally signed and put bison at risk. An environmental group sought a federal investigation, which found no wrongdoing by the tribes.
But a federal judge rescinded the agreement in September 2010, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service did not conduct a proper environmental assessment. Management of the range reverted to federal officials.
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Leith Edgar said the new proposal addresses the court’s decision. The 30-day comment period will be used to find and fix any other problems or issues with the plan, he said.