For Immediate Release
Court Throws Out National Bison Range Tribal Pact
Failure to Consider Potential Negative Effects on Iconic Refuge Was Fatal Flaw
WASHINGTON - A federal court today rescinded an agreement awarding control over
the National Bison Range to a Montana tribe for violating a key
environmental statute in a lawsuit brought by Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, employees of the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service will resume operation of the Bison Range, a
century-old preserve called the crown jewel of the National Wildlife
Today's court order is just the latest twist in the troubled
history of Indian-Interior Department relations on National Bison
Range. The Bison Range agreement which Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of
the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia invalidated today
had transferred all Bison Range jobs, except for a Refuge Manager and
deputy, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). This
pact is a successor to a more limited FY 2005 agreement which the Fish
& Wildlife Service summarily rescinded in December 2006 citing a
host of performance-related issues on the part of the Tribe, as well as
reported mistreatment of FWS employees by the CSKT.
Indeed, it was the failure by the Interior Department to analyze
the potential for a repetition of these earlier problems under the
latest agreement that led to a finding that the pact violated the
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Among the issues the court
found were improperly overlooked were inadequate care and feeding of the
bison and a host of critical tasks left undone or improperly performed.
Currently, the Interior Office of Inspector General is
investigating a PEER complaint detailing tribal management at the Bison
Range, including poaching and other hunting violations, bison deaths and
injuries from inadequate staff training, improper fencing and illegal
"We are most gratified that this agreement has been rescinded,"
stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, who filed the lawsuit on
behalf of four former Bison Range refuge managers whose tenures span 40
years, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and
Nathaniel Reed, former Assistant Interior Secretary during the Nixon and
Ford administrations, as well as a current Bison Range employee whose
job is being displaced. "We expect the government to act quickly to put
Fish & Wildlife Service staff back in place to repair the ongoing
damage to the Bison Range."
Judge Kollar-Kotelly ordered that the current funding agreement
for the CSKT, which runs through September 30, 2011, "be set aside and
rescinded," thus directing CSKT personnel to vacate the refuge to be
replaced by FWS employees. The government could seek to stay this order
if it appeals or it could undertake NEPA review in order to salvage the
current pact. Left undecided by the court, however, were contentions
that the CSKT agreement also violated the Refuge Improvement Act, the
Endangered Species Act, the Intergovernmental Personnel Act and the
Freedom of Information Act.
"The Interior Department should go back to the drawing board
rather than try to resurrect this flawed agreement," Dinerstein said,
noting that this precedent-setting arrangement has big repercussions.
Another 18 refuges in 8 states, constituting 80% of the entire National
Wildlife Refuge System, are eligible for similar tribal agreements, as
are 57 National Parks in 19 states, including parks such as Redwood,
Glacier, Voyageurs, Olympic and the Cape Cod National Seashore. "For
these tribal-federal agreements we need a model agreement that protects
core resources and the integrity of our national parks and refuges. The
Bison Range experience underlines the flaws of an ad hoc approach to
what requires a national strategy."
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.