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MOIESE - Bison thundered through a driving rain and down a hillside here Monday morning, their hoof beats indicating that no matter what happens in courtrooms a continent away, the annual October roundup at the National Bison Range will go on.

This one did so with the help of half a dozen people who lost their jobs at the National Wildlife Refuge less than a week ago because of a judicial decision.

Six Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes employees were among the 25 or so people working to round up the animals, collect biological data and monitor the health of the herd.

Except on Monday, they weren't CSKT employees. They became "emergency U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hires" who returned at the request of the agency, and with the knowledge of the District of Columbia Court that last week effectively terminated their jobs by rescinding a federal agreement with the tribes.

In Washington, D.C., last Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly pulled the plug on the two-year-old funding agreement, saying the Department of Interior failed to live up to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act when it entered into it.

Her ruling cost Jeff King, who manages the Bison Range for the Fish and Wildlife Service, two-thirds of his staff just two days before they were to start rounding up the 400-or-so bison.

Preparations for the roundup start six months before it occurs.

"Which is why it was important to bring back a portion of the staff that was involved in the pre-planning up until a week ago," King said of the CSKT employees.

"The biological crew was paramount, and they were the first three we brought back," King said.

Former lead biologist Amy Lisk and biological technicians Joel Adams and Aaron Sisson were all temporarily hired by FWS for the roundup.

"Then we brought back three (CSKT) maintenance people," King said, "because we needed help getting animals in from the pastures."

All six are "30-day emergency hires," King said, although that doesn't mean they'll be working for 30 days.

"The emergency," King said, "was the roundup."

***

What King calls "our biggest public-use event of the year" at the Bison Range is used to count and brand calves, gather biological data and gauge the health of the herd, considered the most biologically pure left on the continent.

Approximately 400 bison are funneled, one by one, into chutes to be checked out over the course of two days. King said 55 will be culled out as "surplus" to be sold, in order to keep the herd number at an optimum for what the 18,000-acre refuge can support.

Most of the surplus this year will go to a private bison ranch in Wyoming, presumably for slaughter.

While riders on horseback initially gather the bison, gone are the days when they also herded the animals down a hill and into a cutting pen before the bison move into the chute system.

A Jeep does that these days.

"I know the public's disappointed," King said, "but it's done strictly for the animals' health. They seem to come in calmer, a little more relaxed. I can't explain why it works that way. But it's traumatic enough for them to be run through this corral system. We can't forget they are wild animals who are not used to being this close to people."

The roundup each year draws several hundred onlookers at any given time, even though the Bison Range does not publicize it in advance. The reason, King explained, is that the focus needs to be on getting the work done, not controlling even larger crowds that might come to watch.

Among the many who showed up Monday morning was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the rescinding of the funding agreement.

Marv Plenert, a former FWS regional director, said he came to the roundup from his home in Portland, Ore., to see firsthand how things were going.

"Our biggest argument is not with the tribes," Plenert said. "Our argument is that the Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Interior did not follow the law in negotiating the agreement. There was no public involvement until it was signed and done."

Most planning on U.S. wildlife refuges includes extensive public input, Plenert said, "But with this one there was none, zero. If they'd gotten input and done it right in the first place, we wouldn't be in this situation."

***

Plenert said Monday's bison roundup was not his first rodeo, so to speak. He attended several bison roundups during his career with FWS, including ones here in Moiese, and at the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.

"It looks like this one is running smoothly," Plenert said, "and the reason is they've got a lot of Fish and Wildlife Service people that were detailed here from different refuges around the region."

King confirmed FWS personnel from other refuges were also involved, although he said it's not as simple as calling the refuges and asking if they can spare anyone.

"It's not like you need somebody to come grade a road," he explained.

Most of the CSKT employees hired temporarily by FWS for the roundup worked last year's roundup as well, King said.

The Bison Range manager emphasized that Kollar-Kotelly's ruling had nothing to do with "performance or conduct issues" with CSKT employees.

"It was based on a procedural issue that occurred before even one of them was hired," King said. "The judge's ruling definitely had nothing to do with any employees here."

The organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Plenert and seven other plaintiffs, including four former Bison Range managers, has tried to suggest otherwise. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has claimed that "among the issues the court found were overlooked" in the decision were several alleged - and vigorously disputed by the tribes - performance-related issues.

In the same news release, PEER asserted that the rescinded funding agreement had awarded "control over the National Bison Range to a Montana Tribe."

In fact, the Bison Range remained a federal wildlife refuge overseen by the Department of Interior and FWS, with an FWS employee (King) as its manager.

There were also two deputy managers, one who works for the Fish and Wildlife Service and one who worked for the tribes.

Refuges like this one, Plenert said, "Belong to the people of the United States, not just a few people in Montana."

"We just want the refuges managed properly," Plenert continued. "I have no argument with CSKT. They do have a role to play on the refuge, in my opinion - just not managing it."

PEER says the law allowing for the agreement opens the door for Indian tribes to assume similar roles at 80 percent of national wildlife refuges, and 57 national parks.

CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said at least a dozen tribal employees were granted permission to leave their regular jobs and serve as volunteers at the roundup.

"The main concern for CSKT was the safety of the animals and the resources at the Bison Range," McDonald said. "Making these employees available to FWS is part of our effort to lessen the impact from the judge's decision last week."

Neither the Fish and Wildlife Service nor tribes have announced what steps, if any, they will take in the wake of Kollar-Kotelly's ruling.

As King explained, there was a roundup to take care of before that's even discussed.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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