Bison range talks continue

Pablo, Montana (AP) 4-08

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are continuing negotiations over operation of the National Bison Range.

The deadline for the new annual funding agreement that could put tribal employees back to work at the range passed. But both sides expect a deal could be reached before April is over.

“We’re giving ourselves a little more time to reach an agreement,” said Dean Rundle, FWS supervisor of national wildlife refuges in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. “We hope to have it completed soon.”

The range, home to between 350 and 500 bison, is owned by the government but lies within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“We’re very close to having an agreement signed,” said tribal spokesman Rob McDonald.

The deadline was established in late November by Lyle Laverty, President Bush’s choice for assistant Interior Department secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Shortly after being sworn in, Laverty ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service “to bring this issue to a closure.”

The previous agreement fell apart 15 months ago when the FWS locked tribal employees out of their jobs amid much finger-pointing.

The federal agency said the tribal employees had performed some of their duties poorly, some not at all, and had mistreated federal workers.

The tribes argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service had deliberately sabotaged their work in an effort to protect federal jobs.

That’s when the Interior Department stepped in and said it wanted another funding agreement put in place and tribal workers to return to the Bison Range.

The two sides did continue negotiations in Pablo last week, but Rundle said he couldn’t talk about what was holding up an agreement.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss substantive issues at this time,” he said.