Founded by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago, the National Bison Range is often called the Crown Jewel of America’s National Wildlife Refuge System. It is also a major asset for Montana, attracting more than 200,000 visitors each year, making it among the most visited refuges in the nation. These mostly out-of-state visitors also pump an estimated $12.5 million into the local economy.
But instead of being cared for like the ecological gem that it is, in recent years the Bison Range has been treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild. For example, unlike virtually all of the 562 other National Wildlife Refuges, its host agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has never prepared a management blueprint – called a Comprehensive Conservation Plan — for the Bison Range despite a statutory requirement to do so which dates back to 1997.
Part of that neglect is the result of the prolonged limbo caused by ill-fated attempts by Fish and Wildlife to hand over its management and, in the past year, give the refuge away in its entirety to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Meanwhile, the Bison Range’s staffing and funding has shriveled.
Today, the refuge has only five full-time staff, a 50 percent drop since just 2013 and well below the 17 positions it had back in 2003, when negotiations with the tribes first heated up. And the recent slide has been steep — current funding is less than half of the budgeted funds in 2010 and now sits at a record low. Nor does the problem appear to be lack of funds, as the Fish and Wildlife Service offered to fund as many as 13 refuge positions for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes before negotiations for the last co-management plan collapsed in 2015.
Refuge veterans asked my organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), for help in ending the Bison Range’s status as a political hostage. Joining us as plaintiffs in a lawsuit to stop the proposed transfer to the tribes are former Bison Range managers and employees along with former top Fish and Wildlife officials with nearly 250 years of combined refuge experience.
The suit charges the Fish and Wildlife Service with illegally forgoing mandated environmental review prior to proposing transfer legislation last year. Beyond that, we are deeply concerned that: • Once transferred, the Bison Range could be turned into an auto race track, gravel mine or casino, and there would be absolutely no legal recourse if the tribes reneged on their promise to maintain it as a refuge open to the public.
• The transfer makes no provision for the fate of the range’s unique bison herd, considered by many as vital to the future of the bison — now the nation’s official mammal — as a healthy native species.
• And perhaps most importantly, this will likely spark demands by other tribes for similar handovers of 75 other national parks and refuges also recognized as having cultural and historic ties to tribes. Contrary to claims that the Bison Range transfer would set no precedent, it may well have profound implications for our entire system of national parks and refuges.
Ironically, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s first official response to our suit was to deny that it had ever authored a give-away plan, despite ample documentary evidence to the contrary. Then two days before the Trump inauguration, the agency filed a Federal Register notice announcing that it would finally begin the environmental review of the Bison Range’s future management, but declared that its “preferred” alternative would be to hand the refuge over to the tribes — an even more curious position.
We have now filed a motion in federal court arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s latest maneuver functionally concedes the merits of our lawsuit. It asks the court for summary judgment in our favor, as well as directing Fish and Wildlife to rescind the Federal Register notice, renounce support for any legislated transfer and commit to a court-enforced schedule for completing the long overdue conservation plan for Bison Range, to make it a full-fledged member of the Refuge System again.
The U.S. Justice Department asked for and received a delay for its response to our motion until late April in order to ascertain the posture of new secretary of the interior, Montana’s own Ryan Zinke. Perhaps we should be encouraged that his first outside-the-Beltway stop as iInterior secretary was to speak with the hard-working Bison Range staff earlier this month to mark the 114th anniversary of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Secretary Zinke has repeatedly pledged to oppose the transfer of any federal lands. Now he has a prime opportunity to make good on that promise and protect the legacy of his conservation icon, Theodore Roosevelt.
Paula Dinerstein is senior counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C.