Don’t count the Salish and Kootenai Tribes out of the running of at least some future functions at the National Bison Range. Talks between tribal leaders and the federal government are ongoing, despite the passing of a self-imposed deadline.
“We continue to think the negotiations are progressing quite well,” says tribal representative Anna Sorrell. “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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior.
But the tribes, acting under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, want to run operations there not deemed “inherently federal.” They’re also seeking a management role at the nearby Ninepipe and Pablo bird refuges, which sit on tribally owned land. A similar proposal broached in 1994 was eventually withdrawn in the face of non-Indian opposition.
New talks on the issue began earlier this year, and a goal was set to complete a draft agreement by June 30. Sorrell says the tribes now hope to have a pact signed “within this fiscal year.” Public comment and congressional review periods would follow.
A key premise from the start has been that the feds would retain all ownership of refuge lands and easements, and that the properties would continue to be managed for wildlife conservation. Virtually everything else has been on the table.
Paul Hoffman, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, says the “bright-line” issues where inherently federal duties have been defined 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 explains. “There are certain boundaries that have been articulated as part of the negotiation process. It’s new ground for both parties, really. I think the negotiations have been going very well, at least in terms of process.”