Tribes, gov’t will share management of bison range

By Mary Clare Jalonick
Washington, D.C. (AP) 6-08

After months of negotiations, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes signed a three-year agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday to share management of the National Bison Range in Montana.

The government and the tribes have been at odds for a year and a half over daily management of the range, a unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System that lies within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Under the new agreement, the government would own and operate the range indefinitely and the range manager would remain a Fish and Wildlife Service employee. But tribal employees will have substantial involvement in day-to-day decisions and operations.

The idea of joint management of the range has been controversial from the start. Environmentalists have worried tribal management might lead to reduced stewardship, and the tribes have maintained they should manage the land to which they have historical ties.

In late 2006, the Interior Department abruptly canceled an interim plan allowing the CKST a shared role in management after some agency employees complained of mistreatment by the tribes. A few weeks later, the department reversed that decision, saying it would re-establish that relationship in 2007 under certain conditions.

Progress on a deal stalled, though, until Lyle Laverty was sworn in as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks in October 2007. A month later, he wrote a memo to regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials directing them to find agreement.

The fate of the deal is now up to Congress, which has 90 days to accept or reject it. If no congressional action is taken, the deal goes into effect Oct. 1. Montana’s two Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, have endorsed the agreement.

The deal states that the bison range manager, a federal employee, will have final decision-making authority on management direction. But he or she will be advised by a refuge leadership team composed of both tribal and government employees.

Both parties also committed to annual workplace training designed to prevent harassment and discrimination.

According to an internal Interior Department report last year, several Fish and Wildlife personnel filed an informal grievance in September 2006 claiming CKST employees subjected them to personal slander, harassment and employment intimidation. The tribes denied the charges.

“The Service and CKST now have in place a true commitment, from the ground up, for people to understand and appreciate the culture and values of their partners,” says a joint tribal-government document describing the agreement.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and CKST chairman James Steele Jr. both praised the final deal.

Kempthorne said it represents a “reconciliation of sorts” for all parties involved.

“Forging this agreement was no simple task,” he said.

Steele said there was a lot of compromise, including a concession that the tribes would not eventually take control of the range, as they had proposed.

“In any negotiation there is give and take on both sides, and that’s one area we gave in on,” he said.

Still, he said he is pleased.

“It is a day of great pride for my people because we will now be able to demonstrate that we can be innovative partners,” he said.