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Bison back-and-forth

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Jodi Peterson | Apr 13, 2011 12:00 AM

A century ago, the federal government took a tribal bison herd and a chunk of tribal land and created the National Bison Range. Roughly 350-500 bison still roam 18,000 acres north of Missoula, Mont., and after years of negotiation, in 2005 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes finally won back the right to share management of the bison and other wildlife in federal refuges on their lands. The deal was struck under a 1994 law that “allows tribes more say on federal lands where they had a historical interest, ” according to a 2003 HCN story, Back on the Range, that covered the tribes' requests for control.

Bison calf

A bison calf on the National Bison Range. COURTESY FWS

But the tribes’ management of the bison range was controversial from the start, with allegations that tribal employees allowed bison to escape the range and failed to complete required surveys and reports.  By 2007, the feds took back full control, but the Interior Department stepped in and gave the Tribes another chance. This September, though, a lawsuit filed by environmental groups rescinded the agreement funding the Range's operation.

One of the groups that filed the lawsuit, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,  asked for an independent review, complaining that federal and tribal managers weren't applying pesticides correctly and weren’t providing sufficient law enforcement. Interior’s Inspector General investigated; the report, released last week, does not support the group's claims. The Missoulian reports:

On almost a point-by-point basis, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Interior found no merit in allegations long made against the tribes by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which had called for the independent review.

CSKT Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran called the inspector general's report "both gratifying and unsurprising."

"The report proves what most of us in Montana already know," Moran went on. "PEER's allegations concerning tribal performance at the Bison Range are just wrong."

But CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said Thursday that, in the wake of the inspector general's report, talks about a possible new Bison Range funding agreement between the tribes and FWS that would certainly address the judge's ruling are planned to begin next week.

The report from Acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall repeatedly refuted PEER's charges that bison management had suffered because of tribal involvement, and that the tribes were responsible for any number of problems at the Bison Range, ranging from improper pesticide application to inadequate law enforcement.

However, PEER and other environmental groups aren’t likely to give up on their push to keep the Bison Range out of the hands of the tribes. “The significance of these issues extend far beyond the National Bison Range,” wrote PEER in its review request. “Another 18 refuges in 8 states covering more than three-quarters of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System and nearly 60 National Parks, stretching from Redwood to Cape Cod National Seashore, are all potentially eligible for the same type of delegation agreements with Indian tribes.”

But precedent is already being set – the National Park Service plans to turn over management of the south unit of Badlands National Park in South Dakota to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

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