Feds dismiss allegations on bison management

By Vince Devlin
Moise, Montana (AP) April 2011

A year ago, the chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes said he welcomed an investigation into the tribes’ involvement in the operation of the National Bison Range that was requested by a Washington, D.C., environmental group.

This week, he certainly welcomed the results.

On almost a point-by-point basis, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Interior found no merit in allegations long made against the tribes by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which had called for the independent review.

CSKT Chairman E.T. “Bud” Moran called the inspector general’s report “both gratifying and unsurprising.”

“The report proves what most of us in Montana already know,” Moran went on. “PEER’s allegations concerning tribal performance at the Bison Range are just wrong.”

PEER still currently holds the upper hand in its long-running battle to keep the tribes out of the management and operation of the Bison Range, which it says sets a precedent that could leave 80 percent of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and 57 national parks in 19 states, under similar agreements with other Indian tribes.

The group won a court fight last September when a federal judge rescinded a funding agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes over a procedural rule, and tribal employees were removed from the range.

But CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said recently that, in the wake of the inspector general’s report, talks about a possible new Bison Range funding agreement between the tribes and FWS that would certainly address the judge’s ruling are planned to begin next week.

The report from Acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall repeatedly refuted PEER’s charges that bison management had suffered because of tribal involvement, and that the tribes were responsible for any number of problems at the Bison Range, ranging from improper pesticide application to inadequate law enforcement.

For instance, PEER charged that tribal employees “routinely” violated pesticide label instructions when applying chemicals.

“We did not find any instance where an NBR employee violated pesticide application instructions,” the report flatly stated. The employee who wrote the account on which PEER based its allegations told investigators his comments were taken out of context, and the situation was a “nonissue.”

In fact, the only pesticide violation investigators found at the Bison Range involved an outside team of FWS employees that travels to various refuge system sites to spray for invasive weeds.

On other allegations, such as PEER’s charge that bison were escaping once tribal employees became responsible for maintaining fence lines, the inspector general noted that the animals “merely found their way into the wrong pastures” and had never left the Bison Range itself.

Further, the report said, this has been a common problem for decades, and didn’t suddenly start happening after tribal employees began working there. An employee who has worked at the Bison Range for 16 years told investigators that bison getting into the wrong pasture “always happens. You just go and get them, it’s no big deal.”

From PEER allegations that the Bison Range was experiencing a “leadership malaise” to others that said law enforcement was inadequate, the inspector general’s report said it found no evidence to support the claims.

It did find that work plans required by the funding agreement either weren’t completed or were late, but that’s the responsibility of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s project director, not a tribal employee.

The report’s only two recommendations concerned monitoring pesticide applications when they are performed by parties other than Bison Range/tribal employees, and lowering the qualifications necessary to hire a lead biologist.

That position was vacant at the time of the investigation, and the report concluded the tribes were having trouble filling it because their requirements for the job were even more stringent than the federal government’s.

“The inspector general demonstrated that tribal and FWS staff were doing their jobs, and doing them well,” Moran said. “It is unfortunate that taxpayers had to foot the bill to investigate the continual allegations from PEER.”

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, called Kendall’s report “skimpy” in a telephone interview, and said his organization would file a Freedom of Information Act request to “find out what happened to the 50 people interviewed and what they said.”

“It took me all of three minutes to read it,” Ruch said of the report. “We were underwhelmed, and a little confused. They claimed the investigation took four months, but the report was less than four pages and gave no detail.”

Among other things, Ruch said, he didn’t understand how the report could quote someone saying that, in his words, “management is scrambling so much they couldn’t develop a work plan, but on the other hand find there were no problems with management.”

The actual quote in the report was made by a tribal employee and referred to himself and other CSKT employees. He told investigators they were “scrambling all year just to get things done.”

The report did find that a work plan for the 2009 fiscal year required by the funding agreement was never completed, and the 2010 plan was not completed in a timely manner.

“It’s so skimpy, there’s not even enough to read between the lines,” Ruch said of the report. “I’m wondering if they didn’t just phone it in after the court decision” that removed tribal employees from the refuge.

Ruch also said he wasn’t overly concerned with the news that negotiations on a new funding agreement that could return tribal employees to the Bison Range would begin next week.

“They’ll be reviewing an agreement that’s already been struck down by a court,” he said. “It’s not clear these negotiations will bear any fruit. We’ve been to this rodeo before.”

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled last year that the Department of Interior had violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it entered into its second funding agreement with the tribes, by failing to formally invoke a NEPA-required “categorical exclusion.”

“We lodged five legal challenges” to the funding agreement, Ruch said, “and the judge didn’t get to four of them” after rescinding the agreement because of the NEPA violation.

All four could come into play again in another lawsuit, Ruch said, the most important being PEER’s claim that such funding agreements are “an illegal delegation of refuge management, in violation of the Refuge Improvement Act” of 1997.

But the possibility of another funding agreement, and potential legal challenges to it, are still a ways off.

This week, the tribes were simply happy to have an inspector general’s report in hand that repeatedly refutes allegations they’ve listened to for years.

Moran said it “affirms the support the public has shown for the tribes at the bison range.”

“We will continue to try to earn that support through our stewardship practices and our partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” he added, “including at the National Bison Range.”