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MOIESE - The U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General will look into management issues at the National Bison Range raised by a Washington, D.C., environmental group.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility announced Tuesday it had received a letter from acting Inspector General Mary L. Kendall confirming that PEER's request for an "investigation" at the Bison Range will be acted on.

The targets - the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes - said they welcomed the inquiry, and would fully cooperate.

Kendall's letter says an "independent evaluation of the operations" will be conducted per PEER's request, and that "should we identify any violations of law, regulation or policy we will certainly refer such information to the appropriate enforcement or programmatic authority."

PEER strongly opposes the involvement of the CSKT at the Bison Range, and wants it run entirely by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The tribes have an annual funding agreement with the FWS that makes them partners in the operation of the National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

CSKT Chairman E.T. "Bud" Moran said he looked forward to the independent evaluation.

"As a longtime contractor of federal programs, the tribes are accustomed to various audits and evaluations," Moran said Tuesday. "We will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide information, and we look forward to the evaluation report."

"The service will cooperate fully with the inspector general as that office conducts its evaluation," Matt Kales, FWS spokesman, added. "At the same time, the service and its partners, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will continue to implement the annual funding agreement at the range and to steward the range's fish and wildlife resources on behalf of the American public."

PEER maintains the Bison Range is beset by "a host of law enforcement, environmental and management deficiencies," and blames tribal involvement. PEER is one of two groups also contesting the validity of the funding agreement in lawsuits in federal court.

Jeff King, FWS project leader at the Bison Range, was in meetings and did not return a phone message Tuesday. Last month, however, when the request for an investigation was announced, he said many of the issues raised by PEER were present long before any annual funding agreements with CSKT were put in place, and have nothing to do with tribal involvement.

Others, King said, are his responsibility, not tribal employees', and are being addressed.

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Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, called Kendall's letter "welcome news." Noting the current agreement with CSKT expires on Sept. 30, 2011, Ruch said, "The timing of the Inspector General evaluation may determine whether, or under what conditions, this arrangement continues at the Bison Range."

Ruch's group says that tribal involvement at the National Bison Range will open up three-quarters of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and 57 national parks, to similar agreements with other Indian tribes.

PEER blames tribal involvement at the Bison Range for several "deficiencies," including death and injuries to bison, repeated fence openings allowing bison to wander, inadequate law enforcement and illegal pesticide applications.

King said last month that injuries incurred by two bison during last fall's roundup that required the animals to be put down were "unfortunate," but that the same thing had happened at previous roundups when FWS was in sole control. Likewise, bison escaping from one grazing area to another has been a problem Bison Range employees have been dealing with since the fencing system was installed, he said, and didn't just pop up after tribal employees started working there.

King denied pesticides had been applied illegally, agreed that the refuge needed more law enforcement, and added FWS was in the process of hiring a full-time law enforcement officer.

Ruch specifically asked the inspector general to investigate PEER's complaint that a "2009 Plan of Work" required by the funding agreement had never been submitted.

"If there is no work plan how can one determine whether the work is going according to plan?" Ruch asked.

King said in February he hoped to have the plan finished within 30 to 60 days.

FWS authorities dispute PEER's continued assertion that "the U.S. Interior Department transferred operation of the entire National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes," as it says in Tuesday's announcement. The Service cannot, by law, turn over total control to anyone, Kales has noted, and King has said he is in charge of the operation, not a CSKT employee.

"As a landowner of two of the refuges included within the (National Bison Range) complex, the Tribes have a natural interest in maintaining well-run operations there," Moran said. "As always, we continue to encourage people to come to the National Bison Range and see for themselves how well the partnership is working."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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