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MOIESE — When visitors enter the National Bison Range, they wind through the brush and prairie grass on a one-way dirt road. The drive around this National Wildlife Refuge is slow, and Mike Oldham, making the trip on a sunny June morning, kept pulling over.

“There’s the draw to the refuge, right there,” he breathed. A bison was munching on the still-green grass, unbothered by Oldham’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pickup truck. About 350 of these animals roam the Bison Range, bringing an estimated 180,000 visitors last year. It and five other protected areas around the Mission and Flathead Valleys form the National Bison Range Complex.

The tranquil setting belies years of discord over managing these lands, controversy that’s entangled the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, various environmental groups and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Recently, the complex’s fortunes appeared to have turned. As part of a lawsuit settlement in January, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to complete a detailed planning guide called a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP).

“They help the station plan for the next 15 years,” explained Oldham, who currently serves in the complex’s top position of project leader. Beside him sat another refuge CCP he’d helped prepare, a bound document hundreds of pages long.

“If you're going to plan decisions and events and projects, this is your guidance document as far as telling the staff how you're going to manage, what you're going to do, [and] how you're going to do it."

The plans rest on intensive research and consultation with state and local governments, environmental groups, residents and others with a stake in the refuge’s future.

The Bison Range has lacked this guidance for years, and the task of preparing it is stirring new concerns. A previous planning process foundered over a proposal to transfer the range to the Tribes. Now, citing new guidelines from the Trump administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service aims to complete the process on a timeline that is much faster than usual.

That has an environmental group and former wildlife service employees worried that the upcoming plan won’t meet the agency’s own standards for quality, and could cause still more trouble for the National Bison Range Complex.

These lands have raised thorny issues for over a century. The 18,800-acre Bison Range was carved from within the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1908, an act that former Tribal Council Chairman Vernon Finley said took place “without consent.”

Decades of attempts at compensation and joint management followed. In the 1990s and 2000s, the federal government’s effort to jointly manage the refuge with the tribes under Annual Funding Agreements drew accusations of mismanagement and lawsuits from a Washington, DC-based environmental group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER.

Then, in early 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Service explored legislation that would place the Bison Range into trust for the tribes. In a Missoulian Op-Ed, Finley wrote that “the legislation accomplishing this return will continue to require public access as well as bison conservation.”

But PEER took issue with the plan and, along with 10 former wildlife service employees and conservationists, sued the agency. Their complaint claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service had illegally failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the transfer.

It also raised a second claim: That the agency had not yet prepared a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Bison Range, violating a 1997 law requiring all National Wildlife Refuges to prepare one.

As their case sat in U.S. District Court, these two issues merged. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced January 18, 2017, that it would begin preparing a CCP for the National Bison Range. In keeping with the normal administrative process, the agency also set forward some alternative courses of action, the “preferred” of which was placement in trust for the tribes.

After a public comment period, newly installed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that he had “changed course.” An April 13, 2017 press release stated that “I have said I will not sell or transfer public land. I remain steadfast in that commitment, which reflects my decision today. That said, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will play a pivotal role in our discussions about the best path forward.”

The following month, another press release reiterated that decision. It coincided with a new Notice of Intent to Prepare CCP, one that confirmed that “we will not proceed with evaluating a preferred alternative of legislative transfer of the NBR.”

PEER said that this step “fully realized” the lawsuit’s main goal.

“Once that [transfer] was out of the picture, we were free to settle on the other count, which was the CCP,” said the group’s senior counsel, Paula Dinerstein. This past January, the two sides reached a settlement requiring a Comprehensive Conservation Plan by 2023.

For a moment, the future looked bright. Tribal Council Chairman Ronald Trahan voiced optimism for the planning process, and PEER proclaimed that “a new era may be dawning on the National Bison Range.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service now aims to simultaneously prepare two plans — one for the National Bison Range itself, and one for the Complex’s other five units —and has taken public comments on an initial set of planning documents.

But PEER has since soured on the process.

One of its main qualms is timing. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s manual lays out a long series of steps to completing a CCP, from initial team formation and background research through public involvement, drafting and revising. As required by law, a Comprehensive Conservation Plan must include either an Environmental Assessment or a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement. Both documents require Fish and Wildlife to prepare and consider alternative courses of action.

The manual lays out few specific deadlines to complete these tasks, but in practice, they take time. As project leader for Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas, Oldham oversaw completion of a plan that started in 2009 and was finished in 2014. In Montana, planning for the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and the Benton Lake and Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge Complexes, took about five years each.

The settlement provided for a similar timeframe on the Bison Range, mandating a completion date of January 2023. “We’re happy with it taking this much time, because we want it to be a really good, in-depth plan,” Dinerstein told the Daily Inter Lake at the time.

But the Interior Department had already been eyeing a much faster schedule.

In July 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service drafted a plan for the National Bison Range Complex that proposed completing the preplanning and initial scoping by the end of October 2017, a draft CCP and environmental impact statement by April 15, 2019, and the entire process by June 1, 2020.

Then, the schedule sped up even more.

In August 2017, President Trump issued an executive order with a suite of provisions meant to streamline and expedite the federal government’s environmental review processes. That prompted Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to issue another order specific to his department.

Among other provisions, it stated that “each [Interior] bureau shall have a target to complete Final Environmental Impact Statements [EIS] within one year of issuing a Notice of Intent to prepare one.”

Michael D’Agostino, public affairs specialist for the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, explained that “additional guidance from the Department clarifies that all projects with an EIS that began before (Trump's executive order) must now be completed by April 27, 2019 and be less than 150 pages. This guidance applies to the CCP/EIS for the National Bison Range."

The CCP for the other five units, which were not explicitly mentioned in the settlement, involves a less-stringent Environmental Assessment. It's still slated for completion in 2020.

The revised work plan and the planning website show a faster schedule for the Bison Range itself. The plan says an initial meeting was held on September 21, 2017; the website says preplanning began the previous April. The agency has planned drafting, public input and review for the upcoming fall and winter, and aims to sign a “Record of Decision” finalizing the project on April 26, 2019, one day before the deadline.

In effect, a planning process that often takes three to five years has been compressed into two. That could make the Bison Range a high-profile test case for the Trump administration’s efforts to cut through red tape and streamline approval processes, said Monte Mills, a law professor at the University of Montana.

“The agency’s really trying to juggle what their obligations are with the planning process with their own manual with these directives coming down from D.C.,” he said. “I think that’s true across Interior.”

This shift could spark still more legal battles, he continued, if the federal government’s sped-up planning doesn’t meet requirements spelled out in the National Environmental Policy Act or the Administrative Procedure Act.

“There are often legal challenges to these administrative actions, especially on things this contentious,” he explained. “Speeding it up may encourage a less-than-robust review, but the proof will really be in the pudding.”

So far, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are withholding judgment. “From the Tribes’ perspective, we wouldn’t prejudge the document based on the timeframe,” said Tribal attorney Brian Upton.

But PEER already doubts that the finished product will suffice.

“The schedule they have there is really a breakneck-speed schedule,” PEER’s Dinerstein said after reviewing the work plans. In her view, the planners “really can’t come up with a really good quality CCP” by next spring.

“The overall concern of the order is [that] if you speed it up too much you make it legally vulnerable,” added PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

Ralph Webber shares their concerns.

The former project leader of Oregon’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, Webber served on the planning team for its three-year CCP process.

The Bison Range's plan, he predicts, “will not be a quality document.” In the scoping documents that have been released so far, Webber sees signs of less diligence than usual. He pointed to the draft goals as one example.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service has posted nine draft aims for the National Bison Range Complex, such as “Protect, maintain, and restore healthy and diverse wildlife populations with respect to species that are endemic, migratory, and mandated species of concern.” An accompanying spreadsheet elaborates on how the five management alternatives being considered would pursue these ends.

An agency handbook stresses specificity in writing goals, recommending finely pointed statements such as: “Maintain the existing level of species richness of migratory birds in refuge bottomland hardwood forest.” Webber doesn’t see those standards being met. “The goals are so subjective, they can be applied to any refuge in the system,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's D'Agostino disputed this notion, noting that the process has been underway since last year, and that the draft goals had been prepared with public input. In addition, he said that "we are putting all necessary resources on deck to get this CCP completed on time by April 2019."

But critics of the planning process also question its staffing.

While many local, state, tribal and federal employees will take part in the process, the bulk of the work will fall to an 11-member Core Planning Team of refuge and Fish and Wildlife Service staff. The Service's CCP manual identifies the refuge manager as one of the members to be included on the planning team.

The Bison Range Complex, as a group of facilities, has a slightly different top position, project leader. That role has been in flux since January, when Jeff King began an administrative detail in the Denver Regional Office.

Since then, the complex had one acting project leader from January to May, and another, Oldham, since then. The June 28 work plan lists “Project Leader (Acting)” on the Core Planning Team.

D'Agostino said leadership and staffing transitions can happen in the course of the CCP process. Oldham remembered that, when he arrived on the Quivira refuge, its plan was “about 90 percent complete.”

Jeff King is not currently speaking to the media, but some of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs view him as indispensable.

“He is absolutely essential to a reasonably complete and authoritative Conservation Plan for the Refuge,” said William Reffalt, a co-plaintiff to PEER’s lawsuit who worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation groups for decades. Jeff Ruch said that “the person who is probably most helpful to the CCP Process is not being allowed to participate.”

PEER's Ruch included these concerns in a June letter to Secretary Zinke. “The current CCP process is being controlled by Denver leadership with zero involvement of an experienced onsite manager,” he wrote.

D'Agostino, however, maintained that "we are working closely with the refuge folks to prepare the plans in a collaborative, interdisciplinary manner."

Members of the public will be able to assess the quality of the Bison Range’s plans for themselves in coming months, as draft and final documents become available. But the schedule and leadership changes, along with the Bison Range’s budgeting and staffing levels, have already sown suspicions.

Webber, who, along with Reffalt, has accused Tribal Chairman Vernon Finley of misleading the public about the Bison Range’s past, sees a desire to remove the Bison Range from the National Wildlife Refuge system.

“They’ve made some real attempts to try and make the [Annual Funding Agreement with the Tribes] work...it just hasn’t happened. It is such a thorn in the region’s side, I think they’d rather just get rid of the refuge.”

Ruch, meanwhile, cited the planning process in his letter to Zinke, charging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Denver Regional Office with waging “a petty bureaucratic vendetta” against the National Bison Range.

Asked how the Fish and Wildlife Service would respond to this accusation, D’Agostino wrote that the agency was committed to both managing the Bison Range and carrying out the CCP process.

“We recognize the important stewardship responsibility we bear as public land managers," he wrote. "We take this responsibility seriously and strive to balance the needs and desires of many, while using science to guide and safeguard these lands and the wildlife that call them home for current and future generations throughout the [Fish and Wildlife Service’s] Mountain-Prairie Region, including at the National Bison Range.”

As Oldham drove around the Bison Range, he stressed the Comprehensive Conservation Plan’s value in meeting that goal.

“In my mind, not only seeing what we saw in Kansas but even being part of this one in the beginning stages here at the Bison Range, it really comes down to decisions,” he explained.

“You really have to dig down and think in this case about the Bison Range. How does it need to be managed, and would you manage it differently over the next 15 years than you have during the last 50?”

For more information about the National Bison Range Complex’s Comprehensive Conservation Planning process, visit fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/nbrc.php.

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