Through the years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t been known for a willingness to stand up to political pressure. So I was surprised in mid-December when the agency took back control of the National Bison Range in Montana. Until then, it had been operating the refuge jointly with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The move was surprising because the Tribes have been politically adept. They established such good relations with the Bush administration that two years ago the agency brought the Tribes in to help run the bison refuge. The agency did this despite vehement objections from more than 130 national wildlife refuge managers and 40 conservation organizations. All said the arrangement would set a bad precedent.

Sharing management responsibilities wasn’t the agency’s idea. The partnership was imposed on the refuge system by Paul Hoffman, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Hoffman was then a top official at the Department of the Interior, the parent agency of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Refuge System.

I doubt Hoffman acted because he cared much about the welfare of Native Americans, whose lands completely surround the bison refuge, or about the sticky issue of tribal self-determination. The Bush administration agenda, as pushed by Hoffman, has always been about privatization — about contracting out the operation of entire refuges and national parks.

Putting aside the serious question of whether federal lands should be administered by outside parties, the bison refuge arrangement had another problem. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a refuge divided cannot stand. The Tribes were awarded approximately half of the positions and funding for the National Bison Range as well as for the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo national wildlife refuges. Yet despite a 1,000-page protocol that covered virtually every aspect of the split operation, the operating agreement lacked any mechanism to make sure that the agreed-upon work was done.

Contracting out the operation of a national refuge or park to an outside entity, be it a tribe, a state or a multinational corporation, means diluting accountability. If a member of the public has a complaint, who is held to account? What can elected officials do when things turn sour?

In this case, when things turned sour, the agency terminated the agreement. The letter of termination gives many reasons: The Tribes herded bison while cows were giving birth, they didn’t feed enough hay to bison being held for transport, and they failed to complete biological surveys and reports and ignored monitoring standards. Finally, the Tribes did not maintain fences to a high-enough standard. Bison are quick learners and pretty soon, they were searching out weak sections of fence to make their escape.

Despite their poor performance, the Tribes had earlier demanded more funds and asked for total control over the National Bison Range, as well as over the Swan River and Lost Trail national wildlife refuges and five waterfowl production areas near Kalispell. Had this been a private-sector deal, the contract would have been cancelled a year ago. But in the world of politics, performance often does not matter; what matters is your connections.

That is why the Fish and Wildlife Service deserves three cheers for canceling a contract that was not working. Unfortunately, the Dec. 11 decision made by the agency officials closest to the ground won't last. On Dec. 29, Interior Department officials announced their decision to re-establish a working relationship between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation and the Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a kick in the teeth to agency staffers in Montana, telling them their judgment counts for nothing.

I’m not saying the Tribes have no role to play at the National Bison Range. There are other means that would allow them to participate without jeopardizing effective management, such as cooperative agreements. But there has been a loss of priorities in the current situation.

Refuges are supposed to be run to benefit wildlife, not promote a political agenda. As a former refuge manager with many years of experience, I can assure you that politics never got fences repaired or bison fed adequately.

 

Grady Hocutt worked for 29 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now serves as refuge keeper for the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, based in Washington, D.C.