Tribe wants full management of bison refuge

HELENA, Mont. - The American Indian tribe that has shared management of the nation's only federal wildlife refuge for bison wants to ditch the unusual arrangement and take over full management.

But the Interior Department said negotiations are on hold until "significant" personnel issues are resolved. After that, though, it will consider more management responsibility for the tribe, said spokesman Matt Kales.

The two-year joint management agreement between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal agency expired in September.

Proposal submitted

The tribe said it has submitted a proposal seeking full management of the 19,000-acre National Bison Range in northwestern Montana under a contract in which the federal government would pay the tribe for its work.

The joint agreement was a compromise for the tribe, which has been seeking full management of the bison range near Moiese for years. The tribe's proposal comes just months after the release of a performance report that indicated some of the work the tribe was responsible for wasn't getting done.

"Instead of two heads running it, there would be one head. We found it a little bit awkward this style of management," tribal spokesman Rob McDonald said Tuesday. "The original deal that was offered to us wasn't perfect, but we decided to take it and show how we could run it."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider a deal that gives the tribe greater responsibility "on a performance-driven basis" over a three to five year transitional period, Kales said.

First, the agency must resolve personnel complaints, he said. Kales said he could not elaborate on the problems, but said they are related to complaints that arose earlier this year that work conditions have deteriorated since the tribes got involved in running the range.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has said staff members want the tribe's involvement ended.

"The issues are significant," Kales said. "Moving forward at this point is predicated on resolving those issues."

The bison range, within the borders of the Flathead Indian Reservation, was created in 1908 on Indian land the government bought to save bison from extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was charged with managing it prior to the two-year joint agreement.

"We've always had interest in being managers of this completely, and this is our solution to get there," McDonald said of the tribe's proposal.

The tribe's proposal would phase in full management over three years under a federal contract starting in 2007. The proposal calls for the tribe to be paid $1 million a year for its work.

Under the joint agreement, the tribe performed some of the activities on the range, including bison roundups, weed control, fire suppression and collection of federal public use fees. About half of the range's 24 employees were under the tribe's supervision.

Ongoing negotiations

Negotiations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are ongoing, and the proposal is sure to have its critics.

"This is a complex issue," Kales said. "It always has been."

Earlier this year, a performance report indicated much of the tribe's assigned work wasn't getting done. And environmentalists worry the tribe's management could lead to reduced stewardship. McDonald said those worries are unfounded, and are based on subjective and arbitrary reports of the tribe's work.

"We can't deny that some of the areas showed weakness, but they were not substantial at all," he said.