New report reveals problems with Bison Range agreement

New report reveals problems with Bison Range agreement

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has released its evaluation of efforts in 2005 to implement the controversial agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) to conduct 149 different management actions on Montana's National Bison Range Complex, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. Under the Indian Self-Determination Act Amendments of 1994, the Bison Range Annual Funding Agreement turned over from the Service to the CSKT approximately half of the budget and staff positions at this complex of national wildlife refuge lands.

Of the 149 management actions required under the Bison Range agreement in 2005, the Service deferred 22 percent until 2006, to minimize CSKT workload in the first year of the agreement. The Service's evaluation of the remaining activities conducted by CSKT found that 53 percent were entirely successful, 30 percent needed improvement, and 17 percent were unsuccessful. Of the biology activities that were required to be carried out in 2005, such as waterfowl pair and brood counts, fully 35 percent were unsuccessful. Another 23 percent of the biology activities, such as vegetation surveys, were found to need improvement. Each of these categories included activities not initiated in a timely manner, performed by unqualified personnel resulting in significant errors, and data entry and consistency errors that prevented accurate summary and analysis. Similar performance was documented with respect to the visitor services and fire programs, with 65 percent and 57 percent, respectively, of the activities in these categories identified as unsuccessful or in need of improvement. In the maintenance program, a third of the required activities was determined to be unsuccessful or in need of improvement.

The CSKT agreement for the Bison Range, which includes the performance of many daily operational activities across the major programs of the refuge complex, is the first of its kind to be implemented on a national wildlife refuge. Because it was negotiated and implemented without the benefit of national Service policy, and because no policy exists today, the Bison Range has had no blueprints or established procedures to follow. Communication and training under the agreement consumed significant Service resources. More than 1,000 pages of detailed written protocols and support information had to be prepared by the Service, and more than 325 Service staff hours were devoted to training and orientation for CSKT.

The Service report includes a response to its findings by the CSKT, which states that tribal representatives "were disappointed by the subjective nature" of the report. The response details dozens of disagreements with the Service about the report's characterizations and the manner in which the Service is implementing the Bison Range agreement.

Conservation groups point to the problems documented in the report by the Service and CSKT as evidence that the agreement is a fundamentally unworkable way to manage a national wildlife refuge. They have maintained, since the agreement was first proposed, that many of its provisions hamstring the ability of the Service to fulfill its duty and public trust obligation to manage the refuges, and that the shift of management responsibility to CSKT was at least inappropriate. In comments to the Service in 2004, the groups concluded, "It is not consistent with National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act to place the Refuge Manager and the [Service] in the position of having to negotiate on how staff will implement key programs to manage refuge resources."

At present, the Service and the CSKT intend to implement the agreement for the Bison Range Complex for the remainder of fiscal year 2006. They also intend to continue ongoing negotiations on a new agreement for fiscal year 2007. Conservationists await an opportunity to review and comment on any new agreement before it is finalized.

August 09, 2006