(CN) — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility settled its case with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday over the National Bison Range with assurances that a solid plan has been established for the management of the nation’s largest bison facility.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) said “a new era may be dawning” over management of the National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana.
Management of the range has been inconsistent in the last decade. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – the local Native American tribal government – had assumed control of the range in 2006 until PEER challenged that plan in court, claiming the management transfer to the tribes lacked sufficient environmental review. Management then reverted back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010, but with limited funding. In 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service began pursuing federal legislation that would transfer ownership and management of the range back to the tribes – but Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke halted that legislation in 2017 soon after he took office. PEER also sued the federal government over the potential transfer in 2016.
The 18,500-acre bison range, which holds about 500 bison as well as deer, elk, bear and antelope, sits entirely on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.
The settlement agreement reached Monday between PEER and the Department of Justice, which represented the Fish and Wildlife Service, lays out a timeline for establishing a comprehensive management plan for refuge operations. It ensures that locals will have a voice in the process — “not just the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes,” PEER said in a statement.
The tribes on Monday said they will be a part of the planning process for the bison range. “The Tribes have long been on record urging the service to complete these plans,” Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan said in a statement. “We are a cooperating agency for the service in the development of these plans and we look forward to working with them on the plans, as well as on the related environmental analyses.”
The refuge had been without a management plan for over 10 years, PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein said.
“We are delighted to sign this settlement,” Dinerstein said in a statement. “Now it’s time to stop litigating and start building for the future.”
It will take up to six years to complete the management plan, PEER said, which will focus on local ideas and implementation. “While the regional office has a role to play,” Dinerstein said, “it clearly is no substitute for the on-the-ground knowledge and leadership at the refuge level. This plan needs to be carried to term in Montana, not Denver.”
According to PEER, the Bison Range has only four full-time staff – well below the 17 positions it boasted back in 2003 – and the refuge has less than half the budget it had in 2010.
Dinerstein said PEER is now focused on the National Bison Range “reclaim[ing] its rightful place as the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System.”
In its requested relief, PEER asked the court to order the Service to complete a management plan for the National Bison Range. The group did not request that a plan be prepared for the Lost Trail, Ninepipe or Pablo wildlife refuges, which are located within the National Bison Range complex.
“It is telling that the only comprehensive conservation plan that PEER requested in its litigation and settlement is for the National Bison Range, which has almost all of the staff in the National Bison Range Complex and which has been the focus of tribal contracting and legislative activities,” Robert McDonald, tribal communications director, said in a statement. “While it claims to be concerned about conservation, PEER does not appear to be as concerned about the natural resources at the other three refuges in the complex.”
The tribes’ expertise and proven track record in wildlife management along with the tribes’ deep connection to the bison and the range provide a wealth of resources for enhancing the refuge, McDonald said.
“The tribes will continue to seek participation at the bison range, as the land and the bison there are integral to our history, our culture and our reservation,” Chairman Trahan said.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range on May 23, 1908, when he signed legislation to purchase land for the conservation of bison. This was the first time that Congress had appropriated tax money for land to conserve wildlife.
The American Bison Society privately supplied the funds to purchase a herd of 34 bison from the Conrad family in nearby Kalispell, Montana, which was then donated to the refuge. The animals were descendants of the original herd that once roamed the bison range area.