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Bison Range talks still on track

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PABLO, Mont. - Talks between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government over potential tribal management at Montana's National Bison Range continue, despite a self-imposed deadline for completion being missed by several months.

"We continue to think the negotiations are progressing quite well," tribal representative Anna Sorrell said after meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) officials in Denver on Oct. 16. "We're both committed to having an annual funding agreement completed."

The Bison Range, part of the national wildlife refuge system, is currently run by the USFWS. But the tribes, acting under the authority of 1994 amendments to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, want the opportunity to manage operations there that are not deemed to be "inherently federal." They're also asking for similar responsibilities at the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo national wildlife refuges, which sit on tribal land.

The Salish and Kootenai proposal was prompted by a Federal Register notice last year in which dozens of federal refuges, national parks, national monuments, battlefields, hatcheries and other sites were listed by the U.S. Department of Interior as places where "certain programs, services, functions or activities" could potentially be run by so-called "self-governance" tribes.

Among other conditions, tribal entities interested in such management responsibilities must show the sites are of "special geographic, historical or cultural significance."

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) first broached a management proposal for the 18,500-acre Bison Range and the two other Flathead Indian Reservation refuges in 1994. But opposition forces, led primarily by U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and anti-sovereignty groups such as the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance and All Citizens Equal, prompted the tribes to eventually withdraw their request and go back to the drawing board.

The latest proposal was formally broached to Interior Secretary Gale Norton in an April 23 letter from Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Fred Matt.

"The CSKT are interested in negotiating to operate the full range of activities provided at the National Bison Range, which is all programs, services, activities and functions provided at the (range) and ancillary properties excluding the mutually agreed upon 'inherent federal functions,'" Matt wrote. The only matter not being brought to the table "for the immediate negotiations," Matt added, were law enforcement activities.

Talks between tribal leaders and government officials began in earnest earlier this year, and the parties expressed confidence that a draft of the first annual funding agreement for tribal services could be completed by June 30. According to Sorrell, the hope is to now have an agreement signed "within this fiscal year." Then a 90-day public comment period would be scheduled. Congress would have an additional 90 days for review.

"The tribes have been committed to public process, and we continue to be committed to that," Sorrell added. Nonetheless, all of the actual negotiations have been conducted in private. Federal and tribal officials say that's because the issues being discussed amount to "pre-decisional" contract talks that involve personnel matters and other sensitive topics.

"There's no value in having people taking shots at what may happen," Paul Hoffman, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said in a telephone interview. "There will be an ample opportunity for the public to comment on this, and public comment will be taken seriously."

A key premise from the start of the talks has been that the USFWS would retain all ownership of Bison Range and related refuge lands and easements, and that the properties would "continue to be managed for the wildlife purposes for which they were established and for public access and activities on the refuges so long as those are consistent with the conservation of the wildlife for which the refuges were established," negotiation documents state.

"It's not 100 percent management of the Bison Range," Hoffman said. "There are certain boundaries that have been articulated as part of the negotiation process. I think the discussions have been very productive and fruitful. It's new ground for both parties, really. I think the negotiations have been going very well, at least in terms of process."

Hoffman explained that the "bright-line" issues where inherent federal responsibilities have been spelled out include overall management oversight, the supervision and actual payment of federal employees, and the acquisition and dispersal of federally owned lands.

"After that you almost have to look at it case-by-case to make a judgment," he said.

While no other USFWS programs have yet been contracted out to tribes, the National Park Service, another branch of Interior, has already broken ground in this arena. Federal officials say the agency has signed a number of annual funding agreements with tribes for projects or services, most notably at the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve in Alaska, at Redwood National Park in California and at Grand Portage National Monument in far northeastern Minnesota.

Tim Cochrane, Grand Portage's superintendent, said the facility's first "operational" funding agreement with the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe (Chippewa) started in 1999, and the ensuing contract for providing all maintenance and construction at the monument has been re-negotiated each year since. The contracts, he said, have totaled about $1.3 million over the period.

The monument, which commemorates both tribal history and the advance of the fur trade in the Lake Superior region, lies entirely within the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. According to Cochrane, the federal-tribal partnership has so far been a success.

"It's worked out really well," he said. "But it's very complex because you're marrying two government bureaucracies. There has to be a lot of trust involved. That's a necessary component. We know a lot more about each other than we did before. We resolve issues before they reach a boiling point. That's great. There's frequent and candid communications."

Besides the Bison Range talks, Hoffman said the only other USFWS agreement being actively negotiated at this time is with Athabascan Native groups over management at Alaska's Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The Athabascans were denied an annual funding agreement last year, and Hoffman said the agency's decision was upheld in an administrative appeal. A revised proposal has recently been forwarded to the government, he added.