Tribe close to sharing federal bison refuge


Unless Congress derails a deal that took years to negotiate, on March 15, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will take over 10 of the 19 jobs at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Bison Range Complex. And the tribes will begin sharing management of 26,000 federal acres north of Missoula, where hundreds of bison and crowds of waterfowl live.


The deal comes under a 1994 law that allows tribes more say on federal lands where they had a historical interest (HCN, 7/7/03: Back on the range?). Many current and former agency officials worry about how the arrangement will work out. "It’s an attack on the integrity of the national wildlife refuge system," says Gene Hocutt, a retired refuge manager who’s with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He says it’s part of the Bush administration’s campaign to privatize many federal responsibilities.


But the Salish and Kootenai have a good record of managing their wildlife. Clayton Matt, head of the tribes’ natural resources department, says sharing the bison complex "is entirely doable." The government would still control the top jobs; the tribal jobs would be in biology, tourism and maintenance.


Because some positions at the complex are vacant, only six federal employees would be affected, and they could keep their federal benefits while working for the tribe, or apply for other federal jobs. The agency would still pay the entire cost of running the refuge until September 2006, at which point the arrangement could be canceled, adjusted or renewed.


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