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National Bison Range file

A bison stands in a brushy draw at the National Bison Range in this 2018 file photo.

MOIESE — The National Bison Range will have to adapt to tight finances and a new management structure, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Staff said this week.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently preparing documents that, when complete, will guide Bison Range management for the next 15 years. The draft plans, now open for public comment, envision less than a dozen staff positions for the Bison Range, and place it within a large, regional refuge complex. Those proposals have drawn concern through the public-comment process, and at public meetings this week held at the Bison Range, in Missoula and in Polson.

The agency’s draft Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP), and its accompanying Environmental Impact Statement, list three alternative management strategies for the refuge. The first proposes to continue current operations as they are; the second emphasizes managing the refuge for optimal public viewing; and the third, preferred course of action stresses “maintaining and, where feasible, enhancing ecological communities while recognizing ever-changing environmental conditions,” in close collaboration with local partners.

The draft plan projects these alternatives would cost between $1.1 million and $1.4 million each year. Alternative A, which continues current operations, calls for seven positions at the refuge. Alternative B, the visitor-focused one, calls for 9, and the agency’s preferred Alternative C calls for 10.

Guests at this week’s meetings, and public commenters, have questioned the adequacy of those staffing levels. In public comments shared with the Missoulian, Ralph Webber, a former project leader at Oregon’s Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, wrote “the reality is these staff positions...are so inadequate and unrealistic that a serious attempt of achieving goals is far more limiting then (sic) implied.”

Skip Palmer, a retired Service employee who spent 16 years at the Bison Range, also raised concerns about staffing levels. “The number that they have there now is not enough to take care of any of the alternatives,” he said at Tuesday’s Missoula meeting. “Without the Fish and Wildlife Service and the regional office going to make sure that the staffing is available... we’re wasting our time.”

“The refuge system has changed from the way it used to be, whether we like it or not,” said Kevin Shinn on Tuesday. Shinn is currently acting project leader at Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in Marion, and a member of the planning team.

He said that earlier days of higher staffing were “a great time to be in the Fish and Wildlife Service, and we, from what I'm hearing from above, we will not probably ever get to that again.”

“We would've been thrilled to ask for 20 people in the CCPs,” said another member of the planning team, federal wildlife officer Michael Koole, in Missoula, “but that's just not going to be a reality. You can send that [request] up but the Regional Office is just never going to give you budget for that.”

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Planning team member Brian Upton, an attorney with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, suggested at both the Polson and Missoula meetings that the Service provides more information about its recent budgetary and staffing history. Vanessa Fields, the Bison Range’s project leader and the planning team leader, said Tuesday she couldn’t provide exact figures on those issues at the moment.

All of the alternatives have been prepared in accordance with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s realignment strategy, an ongoing effort to streamline its administration. Currently, the National Bison Range, Lost Trail and Ninepipe national wildlife refuges, and several area Wetland Management Districts form the National Bison Range Complex.

The agency’s 2016 realignment plan calls for these units to be consolidated into a much larger “Western Montana Complex,” which will also include Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Benton Lake Wetland Management District, Swan River National Wildlife Refuge and Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. In this new complex, the draft conservation plan predicts, there will be an estimated 22 full-time, permanent staff that will support both the station where they are located, and as appropriate, other stations in the Complex.”

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Palmer is skeptical of this idea. “Complexing [refuges together] is not a good idea for a refuge as complex as the National Bison Range,” he said after Wednesday’s meeting in Polson.

The complexity of managing this refuge was clear at the meetings, where other commenters touched on topics ranging from the genetic diversity of the refuge’s 250-300 bison to the possibility of relocating its main entrance to a more convenient spot.

The latter idea came from Whisper Camel-Means of Polson, an avid wildlife-watcher at the Bison Range and a wildlife biologist. “You can see such a variety of species just on the lower road,” she said, “it’s just an enjoyable place where people can go and gain solace.”

The Bison Range’s neighbors can currently share these and other perspectives through the public comment process, Fields said. “The comments we’re collecting here very well may influence the final CCP and EIS,” she said. The draft comprehensive conservation plan is available for review at fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/nbrc.php, and open to public comment until May 20. The Service plans to complete the process at the end of November.

Once it concludes, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ future role will likely remain a matter of debate. Tribal attorney Brian Upton joined other state, local and federal officials on the planning team, and the draft plan mentions the possibility of a future annual funding agreement with the tribes.

It does not, however, include the tribes’ long-held — and controversial — goal of having the refuge placed into federal trust status. Upton has previously explained that any legislation allowing for such a transfer would be entirely separate of the planning process.

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