PABLO – The plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit that seeks to derail a proposal to transfer the National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes “lost credibility on Bison Range issues long ago,” a tribal spokesman says.
Three Montana residents are among 10 individuals who joined Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week in Washington, D.C.
They’re making the same argument PEER successfully used five years ago when it got a federal judge to halt an annual funding agreement that had made CSKT and the Fish and Wildlife Service partners in managing and operating the Bison Range.
The plaintiffs say the federal agency again failed to conduct necessary environmental review before telling CSKT Chairman Vernon Finley in February that it would support legislation to transfer the wildlife refuge to the tribes.
“The parties filing suit to try to stop the return of the Bison Range land to the tribes have always opposed tribal participation there – even though it is in the center of our reservation and has ties to our people dating back thousands of years,” Finley said. “We will move on with what we believe is an elegant solution to the issue.”
The lawsuit asks a judge to rule that FWS is violating provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Refuge Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. It also wants the court to order the agency to develop a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Bison Range, and “to take no further action to sponsor, advocate for, or promote the (transfer) legislation” until an environmental impact statement has been produced.
No legislation has yet been introduced. The tribes say they are in discussions with Montana’s congressional delegation about doing so.
The plaintiffs include PEER members Susan Reneau of Missoula, Marvin Kaschke of Polson and Delbert Palmer of Charlo. The other seven individuals are from out of state, but include former Bison Range managers and employees.
Reneau is identified in the lawsuit as an author and columnist who volunteers hundreds of hours a year to “saving the NBR.”
In a statement this week, CSKT noted that Reneau, in a radio interview on “Voices of Montana” last month, referred to President Barack Obama as “an Islamic terrorist.”
Kaschke managed the National Bison Range from 1968-'77. Palmer worked in the refuge’s maintenance department for 16 years prior to retiring late last year, and “received an award from Rick Coleman, the FWS regional director, for extra effort towards making (an earlier annual funding agreement) work,” according to the lawsuit.
In their statement, the tribes said Palmer “is documented by the Montana Human Rights Network as having been a board member of All Citizens Equal, a group designated by the network as an anti-Indian organization.”
Other plaintiffs include three former Bison Range managers, David Wiseman of Morrison, Colorado (1995-2004), Jon Malcolm of Cheney, Washington (1981-94) and Jospeh Mazzoni of Rancho Murieta, California (1965-68), as well as Robert Fields of Beaverton, Oregon, a refuge manager trainee at the Bison Range in 1962-63.
Even though no bill has been introduced, PEER claims such a bill would give the entire refuge complex, including the “prized bison herd totaling nearly $100 million in value, to the CSKT without any compensation. Ironically, federal taxpayers had previously paid twice to purchase the refuge’s 18,000 acres.”
PEER’s press release announcing the lawsuit also charges that there will be no requirement for the tribes to maintain the Bison Range as a wildlife refuge or admit the public, nor make any provision for the fate of the bison herd that calls the refuge home.
“The law requires federal agencies to think through the consequences of proposals before launching them,” Paula Dinerstein, PEER’s lead attorney, said. “The inability or unwillingness of the Service to do its homework on the Bison Range has kept this century-old refuge in political limbo for more than a decade.”
In response, CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said, “PEER’s press release intentionally ignores the fact that legislation to restore the Bison Range to federal trust ownership for the tribes would require continued bison conservation, as well as continued public access. Chairman Finley publicly affirmed both of those points in an April 3 Missoulian guest column.”
McDonald also took issue with the suggestion that the federal government has twice paid the tribes for the land where the Bison Range is located.
The government unlawfully took the land, which the tribes did not want to sell, to begin with, he said, and then paid the tribes $1.56 an acre, a fraction of its value even in 1912. Almost 60 years later, a court ordered the government to pony up the rest of the actual 1912 market value of $14 an acre, and the tribes were compensated just over $231,000.
“PEER lost credibility on Bison Range issues long ago,” McDonald said. “Their history of playing fast and loose with the facts is troublesome.”