Bison Range reversals

| October 28, 2004
It’s been a month of big questions at the National Bison Range near Moiese. An annual funding agreement between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes—which would hand over some duties on the National Wildlife Refuge to the tribes—was drafted and commented on and apparently headed for Congress.

Then, on Oct. 8, 23 National Wildlife Refuge Managers released a protest eviscerating the agreement as “vague,” “imprecise” and “unworkable” in a manner ensuring that “No Refuge Manager, no matter how skilled, could successfully implement” it.

Vocal Missoula critic Susan Reneau, upon reading the letter, asked Sen. Conrad Burns for a “complete Congressional investigation.”

But it was Rep. Denny Rehberg who made political hay with the news, issuing a “joint news release” with USF&W and the CSKT announcing a 15-day extension of the public comment period (it lasts until Nov. 4).

Rehberg made the request because USF&W had finally released a cost estimate—a suspiciously positive 90-percent lower than early estimates—of implementing the agreement.

Finally, on Oct. 20, the news broke that USF&W had given approval to a deal that allows a Native-owned energy company to drill for oil on 110,000 acres of the 9-million-acre Yukon Flats refuge in Alaska. Yukon Flats is the only operative precedent to the proposed funding agreement at the Bison Range. The federal register identifies 34 national parks, all 16 wildlife refuges in Alaska and 15 additional refuges in the continental U.S. as eligible for similar agreements.

Critics of the Bison Range deal suggest that tribes are negotiating with Interior Secretary Gail Norton and her Republican bosses to open federally protected areas to energy exploration.

“The real story is oil,” Reneau has written. “The real story is going south to the National Bison Range Complex by Secretary of Interior Norton and her Deputy Secretary of the Interior Steve Griles (Dick Cheney, really) to set turnover precedents they can duplicate in Alaska where there is oil.”

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