USFWS, tribal refuge plan draws criticism

Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

St. Paul An agreement reached between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service and an American Indian tribe in Montana has refuge advocacy
groups questioning if such an agreement is in the best interest of
national refuges. Further, they wonder if similar agreements will
occur elsewhere, including Minnesota.

Technically, yes, they could occur, according to Scott Flaherty,
public affairs coordinator for the USFWS office at Fort
Snelling.

And such an agreement has been in place for nearly half a decade
at Grand Portage National Monument, a part of the National Park
Service, in northeastern Minnesota, said Matt Kales, of the USFWS
in Denver.

The agreement reached between the USFWS and the Confederated
Salish and Kootenai Tribes allows the tribes to perform some of the
service’s activities at the Bison Range Complex in Moeise,
Mont.

Groups such as the National Wildlife Refuge Association have
expressed concerns ranging from job losses for USFWS employees, to
additional costs, to the USFWS losing management capabilities.

“In its totality, the agreement creates a management quagmire
for the FWS which is charged by law with managing the National
Wildlife Refuge System the results of which will be fewer resources
with which to ensure the refuge and the refuge system meet their
vital wildlife conservation objectives,” a NWRA news release
states.

Kales said those concerns have arisen as the two entities
negotiated an agreement, only the second such agreement for a
national wildlife refuge.

Under federal legislation, qualified tribes are allowed to
request such an agreement under the Indian Self-Determination and
Education Assistance Act. Tribes may request to perform activities
administered by the Interior Department which are of geographic,
historic, or cultural significance to the requesting tribe.

Kales said that’s especially true, as a portion of the Montana
refuge sits smack-dab in the middle of the Flathead Indian
Reservation.

Further, “The Department of the Interior is the department most
directly tied to assisting tribes on a number of levels,” he
said.

The USFWS/CSKT agreement, if it passes Congressional inspection
(Congress has 90 days to review the agreement; if it takes no
action, the plan may be implemented) would be in place for Fiscal
Years 2005 and 2006. Activities performed by tribal members would
include non-game bird surveys, waterfowl pair counts, bird banding,
vegetation monitoring, GIS mapping, invasive plant control, fire
suppression and more.

What about the USFWS employees who currently perform those
duties? According to Kales, there could be up to 11 “affected”
employees at Bison Range. Those employees have a number of options.
They may resign and work for the tribe, and choose between benefits
from either entity; they may request reassignment to the tribe; or,
by default, they may separate themselves from the USFWS.

The situation of those 11 caused several current USFWS managers
to write a letter opposing the movement, according to the Blue
Goose Alliance, a refuge advocacy group.

“Managers took the action based on concerns that the proposal
could become a prototype for future agreements involving their
refuges or hatcheries with other tribal entities,” the BGA said in
a statement.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association charges the Bison Range
agreement will cost the federal agency an additional $500,000.

While the exact amount of the agreement’s cost isn’t yet known,
Kales said the agency’s estimate is about $25,000. The exact cost
will be determined by the actions of the 11 affected USFWS workers.
Money will pass through the tribes to those performing the refuge
work.

The agreement also has raised concerns about the loss of
decision-making authority by USFWS managers. However, according to
the USFWS news statement, “The service will maintain ownership of
and management authority over all lands and building of the Bison
Range.”

Kales said decisions can be appealed up the Interior Department
ladder.

The Bison Range agreement comes shortly after a similar
agreement between the USFWS and the Council of Athabascan Tribal
Governments in the Yukon Flats National Refuge of Alaska.

In Minnesota, the refuge most likely to be affected is Tamarac
National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota because part of
it abuts a portion of the White Earth Indian Reservation.

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