Interior Department revives bison range talks


By Mary Clare Jalonick -- Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A recently installed Interior Department official has revived stalled negotiations between the government and an Indian tribe over management of Montana's National Bison Range.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have been at odds over daily management of the range, which is owned by the agency but lies within the boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Lyle Laverty, Interior's new assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, wrote in a Nov. 26 memo to regional Fish and Wildlife Service officials that lack of resolution on the issue is ''distracting us from our mission.''

He ordered the officials to work with third-party facilitators and resolve the issue by March 28.

''Let's bring this issue to closure!'' Laverty wrote.

In late 2006, Interior abruptly canceled an interim plan that had allowed the CKST a role in managing the range after some agency employees complained of mistreatment by the tribes. A few weeks later, the department reversed that decision, saying it would re-establish that relationship in 2007, under certain conditions. But there has been little progress on those negotiations this year.

Laverty, who was confirmed by the Senate in late October, said in the memo that he began looking into the dispute after a conversation with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. He said resolution is important to Montana's congressional delegation and other members who chair environmental committees.

The memo included an ''action plan'' for resolving the issue.

''It is our intent to establish a positive, working relationship with CKST that, at the very least, includes material involvement of tribal members in the day to day operations at the [National Bison Range],'' the memo reads.

Laverty said in the memo that any agreement must keep the refuge in federal hands and decisions must be made by both agency and tribal officials.

CSKT Chairman James Steele Jr. said the tribes are pleased with the developments.

''This is good news for the bison, the range and the public,'' he said.

Dean Rundle, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge supervisor, was out of his office Dec. 5 and did not return calls.

Interior spokesman Chris Paolino said the department is continuing to seek a mutually beneficial agreement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes.

''This memo affirms that,'' he said.

The joint management plan has been controversial from the start. Environmentalists worried that tribal management could lead to reduced stewardship. And federal employees at the range complained that they were treated badly by the tribes.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington interest group that lobbies for environmental causes, released an internal Interior report Dec. 5 that detailed some of the controversy. The group received the report through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the report, Fish and Wildlife Service employees said they were harassed by members of the tribes and accused tribal members of not feeding some of the bison properly.

In an interview with the department's inspector general, which compiled the report, Associate Deputy Interior Secretary James Cason said the department originally intended to increase the number of tribal positions on the refuge, allowing the tribes to manage it completely by 2010. But the relationship between tribal and agency employees subsequently went to ''hell in a hand basket.''

In the report, several agency employees speculated top Interior officials favored the tribes in the negotiations because CKST is not part of a sweeping class action lawsuit against the department filed by a number of tribes over century-old trust responsibilities. But the report does not say whether there is any truth to the accusations, and top officials deny the lawsuit was a factor.

The inspector general concluded that senior department officials exerted ''considerable and unusual influence'' but that the influence was neither improper or illegal.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Director Jeff Ruch said the negotiations have been ''purely about politics, with the interests of wildlife having precious little to do with the outcome.''

In a statement, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he hopes the negotiations can end the ''name calling and the divisiveness.''

Tester said the range is a ''special place that ought to be managed by the tribes - without severe cuts to jobs and to the bison herd.''

A spokesman for Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, said he had not yet read through the Interior memo.