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Tribes deserve chance with Bison Range - Thursday, January 29, 2009

Tribes deserve chance with Bison Range - Thursday, January 29, 2009

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The ink had barely dried on the new National Bison Range management agreement before opponents of the arrangement started slinging some ink of their own.

One group based out of Washington, D.C., filed its lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court last month. This month, a second national group announced it would be filing suit, too.

Both groups seek to toss out the most recent funding agreement between FWS and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. That agreement, signed in June, details spending for the Bison Range for the next two years and spells out how the federal agency and the tribes plan to divvy up responsibilities, including the annual bison roundup, wildfire suppression and visitor services.

This agreement didn't come easily. Rather, it is the result of years of trial and error on the range, which is located just south of Moiese on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Although the range is located on reservation land, the tribes have had to fight for a say in its operation - despite the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 and the Tribal Self-Governance Act of 1994, both of which were designed to allow tribes to contract with U.S. agencies to manage certain federal programs.

Nevertheless, it appeared the tribes were making progress at the National Bison Range until about two years ago, when increasingly heated accusations from both FWS and tribal employees led FWS to abruptly cancel the agreement they had been working under and lock tribal employees out - literally.

Negotiations for a new agreement did not resume for many months, but finally, shortly after the range marked its 100-year anniversary in May 2008, the tribes and FWS agreed upon a new contract. Many people - including the Missoulian's editorial board - cheered that development and hoped it would signal a new era of cooperation in the range's best interests.

However, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Blue Goose Alliance are planning to derail those hopes. PEER is alleging inadequate oversight of the contract, and Blue Goose has accused the contract of violating the Endangered Species Act.

We suspect that both are grasping at straws because they fear for the eventual privatization of national wildlife refuges and other national assets, but those fears are unfounded when it comes to the contract for the Bison Range. As CSKT Chairman James Steele Jr. has pointed out repeatedly, the tribes are not a private entity, not by any stretch of the imagination, and the range remains under the authority of FWS.

Shared management of the Bison Range got off to a problematic start and has continued to face problems. For that reason, the range should be watched closely over the next two years. So far, things seem to be going smoothly.

The bottom line is, the tribes deserve the opportunity to help manage the Bison Range. Let's at least give this arrangement a chance to succeed before we sue it into certain failure.

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