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Montana Bison Range and refuge management in question

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HELENA, Mont. - Defining what is "inherently federal" is a main issue to be resolved in a revived proposal from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to manage the National Bison Range and two nearby wildlife refuges on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation.

The 18,500-acre Bison Range, established in 1908, and the Ninepipes and Pablo national wildlife refuges are currently run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior. The tribes want to contract year-to-year management of the properties through provisions of the federal Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

In April 2002, Interior published a long list of federal properties in the Federal Register that are eligible to be managed by so-called "self-governance" tribes that can prove the sites have "special geographic, historical, or cultural significance" to their nations. Included on the list are 33 national parks, preserves, battlefields, seashores and monuments,19 national refuges, hatcheries and other similar operations, and nearly a dozen federal water projects.

Negotiations between the Salish and Kootenai tribes and top Interior officials over the three Montana sites are under way, and the parties hope to complete draft annual funding and management agreements by June 30 so they can be put out for a 90-day public and congressional review. Tribal and federal officials say the proposal could be finalized by the end of November.

If approved, the Salish and Kootenai would be the first tribes in the nation to be authorized for such a management transfer. Interior officials recently entertained a similar proposal from tribal leaders in Alaska to take over some management duties at Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, but that request was denied, says Paul Hoffman, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. He adds that the Athabascan groups say they'll soon submit another proposal for federal consideration.

A Salish and Kootenai initiative in 1994 to manage the three Montana properties drew vehement attacks from non-Indian opponents on the reservation and from national anti-sovereignty groups that argued the refuges should stay under sole federal control. Backers of the revised proposal, as with the first request, note that no land titles would be transferred in the action, and the federal government would maintain strict oversight of all Bison Range and refuge activities.

An ongoing point of discussion is over exactly what duties the USFWS would retain and which would be relinquished to the tribes. According to Hoffman, it has so far been determined that one inherent federal function would be to keep a primary USFWS manager in place at the Bison Range. But, he says, almost everything else in the talks remains up in the air.

"Every function does not have to be done by a federal employee," he explains. "We're still trying to work out the details on that."

Opponents, some organized under the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), its sister organization, the Citizens Equal Rights Foundation (CERF), and All Citizens Equal, a Flathead Reservation-based group that has fought Salish and Kootenai projects and jurisdiction for more than three decades, also cry foul over a proposed plan to eventually instate tribal hiring preferences at the Bison Range and refuges. In addition, they're criticizing the parties for keeping the actual talks private, even though members of the public have throughout the process been invited to air their views on the matter to each of the parties.

"We're very interested in public comment," Hoffman says. "But we are not conducting a poll. We will listen to concerns and incorporate them into the negotiations, but it's not a matter of going through the mail and counting who is for and who is against."

Some detractors are also taking a purely racial route by arguing that the tribes, despite a strong record of compacting and contracting a host of other federal programs, are not capable of managing the Bison Range and nearby refuges, will allegedly harass and fire non-Indian employees, and will otherwise degrade the popular facilities, which draw visitors from around the globe. Others argue that the tribes might try to impose traditional religions on Christian schoolchildren who visit on tours.

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Tribal leaders, after taking a pounding and watching their 1994 request flame out politically, are taking a decidedly proactive stance this time around. Television, newspaper and radio ads commissioned by the tribes urge area citizens to "Join the Herd" and support the transfer of management. Other ads, op-ed columns and letters to the editor take on misinformation spread by CERA, CERF, ACE and other naysayers. "Don't Be Buffalo'ed," says one recent tribal advertisement.

"We are happy to begin the negotiation process, and we are encouraged about the opportunities for tribal management of these refuges which lie within the Flathead Reservation and have clear cultural and historic ties to our tribes," says Salish and Kootenai Chairman Fred Matt. Tribal leaders note that the Bison Range is comprised of former trust lands and federal leases of tribal land make up much of the two national refuges. They also point out that descendants of an early tribal bison herd were some of the first animals to be released on the range.

Detractors, meanwhile, are also pounding the airwaves, circulating a national petition to stop the pending agreements, organizing gatherings, and urging opponents to contact U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who played a prominent role in derailing the tribes' earlier proposal.

This time, says Burns spokesman J.P. Donovan, the senator, who chairs the Senate Appropriation Committee's Interior subcommittee, is closely watching the situation and calling for all of the contracting process to be open.

"He wants this to be vetted in the public process - no behind-the-scenes, closed-door meetings," Donovan says. "He feels this is a local decision. He really wants to hear from constituents."

Bob Larsson, a St. Ignatius resident and founder of a private youth program on the reservation, says he's against the transfer because of the precedent it would set. But he maintains his opposition is not racially based.

"It is a national refuge, part of the national system," Larsson says. "It's working very well. It's worked for 95 years at the Bison Range. I don't see any reason to fix what's not broke. It was not started like the BIA for Indian things. It's public land. If it was a BIA project, it would be a whole different story."

Larsson, however, says he's increasingly dismayed with the tenor of the debate. At a recent opposition gathering in nearby Missoula, numerous detractors degraded tribal members by saying the transfer would be "another handout to the Indian people," and alleged the Salish and Kootenai government, one of the most progressive tribal organizations in the country, is not accountable to non-Indian concerns, especially when it comes to resource-management issues.

In recent weeks, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national association of government employees from natural resource agencies, blasted the tribal proposal for allegedly being illegal. According to a June 9 letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, federal employees may end up being improperly displaced, PEER attorney Dan Meyer wrote, and the proposed action cannot move forward without a full-blown environmental impact statement. Tribal and federal officials have not yet responded to the group's charges.

Hoffman, meanwhile, says the ground rules for negotiations and qualifications are a lot clearer than when the Salish and Kootenai broached the first proposal in the mid-1990s.

"I think there is a better understanding of what's on the table this time," he adds.