Group slams management of National Bison Range

Moiese, Montana (AP) Feb. 2010

A Washington, D.C., environmental group asked the Interior Department on Wednesday to investigate the operation of the National Bison Range near Missoula, saying it is plagued by a number of deficiencies.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released documents it said show the federal government’s arrangement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes concerning the range isn’t working.

“There needs to be an outside, independent review of what is actually happening on (the) Bison Range,” PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said. “The only official reports come from CSKT employees who need to put a happy face even on calamities.”

PEER said it has found an inadequate law enforcement presence on the range, repeated fence openings that allow the refuge’s bison to wander, and CSKT employees “routinely violating” pesticide label instructions.

But Jeff King, project leader at the Bison Range and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, said some of the problems the group cites existed long before the tribes had any involvement with the range, while other issues are being addressed.

“We always understand it is the right of anybody to request an (Inspector General) audit,” he said. “We welcome any look, and we’ll be as open and transparent as we can.”

King agreed more law enforcement is needed, but he noted that the FWS is already looking for a full-time officer for the 19,000-acre refuge. As for the fence openings, he said it’s something employees have always dealt with, whether they worked for the FWS or the tribes.

King added that tribal employees have never violated pesticide label application instructions, saying such workers are trained and licensed by the state to apply pesticides.

PEER filed a lawsuit in federal court in December seeking to nullify the annual funding agreement between the Interior Department and the tribes. It said the government illegally contracts out operation of a major federal facility without adequate oversight to protect taxpayers.

The group has long opposed any tribal involvement in the century-old wildlife refuge, which was previously operated entirely by the FWS. PEER said the contract opens up 80 percent of the National Wildlife Refuge System, as well as 57 national parks, to similar agreements with Indian tribes.