Interior official ‘hopeful’ bison range dispute can be resolved

By Mary Clare Jalonick and Matthew Brown
Washington, D.C. (AP) 11-07

The Interior Department official who oversees Montana’s National Bison Range said during November that he is hopeful the government can work out an agreement with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

James Cason, associate deputy Interior secretary, said the dispute over range management will not be resolved until both sides start new.

“There is fertile ground to have an agreement if people can get past their concerns,” Cason said. “A good solution begins with people knocking the chips off their shoulders.”

Cason was on Capitol Hill to testify against a House bill that would give Indian tribes such as the CKST more leeway in certain compacts with the government. Cason said that if the bill passes, it could give the tribes more authority to decide how the bison range is managed.

The legislation has the support of the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.V.

“Throughout the years, tribal self-governance has been hailed as one of the most successful federal programs for Indian tribes,” Rahall said at the hearing.

In his testimony, Cason said he understood that some of the impetus for the bill stemmed from negotiations between the Interior Department and the CKST.

The federal agency abruptly canceled an interim plan late last year that had allowed the CKST a role in managing the range. Later that month, the department reversed that decision, saying it would re-establish that relationship in 2007, under certain conditions.

But the new contract is still being negotiated, leaving future control of the range up in the air.

Several interests have weighed in on the dispute. Environmentalists have worried that tribal management could lead to reduced stewardship. And federal employees at the range have complained of mistreatment.

The Salish-Kootenai deny those charges and maintain they should manage the land to which they have historical ties. The range lies within the Flathead Indian Reservation.

CKST spokesman Rob McDonald said the tribes in early 2007 proposed a new agreement for management of the range. He said they have yet to hear back from the Interior Department.

McDonald said an offer later made by Interior officials – to hire up to 9 members of the tribes to work at the refuge – contradicts laws promoting Indian self-governance.

“We’re talking about a law that has us manage ourselves and run programs that are suited to the land, the culture, the people and the needs of the refuge,” McDonald said. “All they’re offering to do is hire a couple of Indians.”

Dean Rundle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge supervisor, said the government’s proposal offers the tribes nine full and part-time jobs at the refuge, out of a total of 15 positions. That would not include the refuge manager position, Rundle said.

He added the regulations that governed the prior agreement between his agency and the tribe “are at the core of our joint failure in our previous attempt to work together.”

“Those regulations set up both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes for problems,” he said.

An environmental group warned that because the Interior Department controls much of the nation’s public lands, Congress should be hesitant to pass legislation that would give management of those lands to tribes that would face little federal oversight.

“There wouldn’t be the normal sort of checks and reviews that take place now when federal agencies deliver sub par work,” said Jeff Ruch with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

He said as many as 76 national parks and wildlife refuges would be eligible for tribal management, with taxpayers still covering operating costs at the sites.

But Rahall, the committee chair, rejected that claim.

“No unit of the National Park System would be turned over to an Indian tribe by this bill,” he said.

Administering national parks and refuges, he said, is an “inherent federal function” that cannot be transferred to tribes.

Associated Press writer Matthew Brown reported from Billings, Mont.