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Zinke's Interior Department reversal sends Bison Range management plans back to the drawing board

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Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scrapped its consideration of transferring management of the National Bison Range in Moiese to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The agency chalked up the decision, in part, to a "change in policy direction"undoubtedly a reference to Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke's full reversal of Interior's position on the transfer in mid April. Now, the future of refuge management has plunged back into the bureaucratic process, with FWS scheduling two public scoping hearings in Polson and Kalispell during the first full week of June.

The redirection is an odd turn of events, considering FWS' January assertions that a transfer to trust ownership via the Bureau of Indian Affairs was its preferred course of action. Zinke claimed the change is part and parcel of his commitment to "not sell or transfer public lands," seemingly ignoring the fact that many environmental groups, including Montana Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation, have supported CSKT control and refuted any comparison to the federal lands transfer movement they've vehemently opposed.

The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility wasted no time in claiming responsibility for FWS' "new posture," citing a lawsuit filed by the group last year to block any transfer of the bison range to CSKT. PEER began pressuring Zinke on the issue shortly after he took up his new post, publicly declaring the bison range a "prime opportunity" for him to make good on his anti-transfer promises.

"Now it is time for the Fish & Wildlife Service to put its money where its mouth is by committing sufficient resources to not only complete a good plan but also, and more importantly, to implement that plan," PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein said in the group's statement.

The new direction instituted by Zinke has altered not only FWS' approach to crafting future management plans for the refuge, but also the timeline for the agency's settlement negotiations with PEER. FWS has now filed two extension requests with the U.S. District Court in D.C., and both parties intend to submit a joint status update on their negotiations by mid June.

The tribes, which drafted congressional legislation to execute the transfer with the help of Sen. Jon Tester last year, took a measured stance on Zinke's decision. In a letter issued the same day as Zinke's announcement, tribal chairman Vernon Finley thanked the secretary for calling to inform him personally, while reiterating his belief that trust ownership for CSKT will "always be a logical solution to future management." Finley assured the Indy this week that, as FWS recommences the process of drafting a comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge, the tribes will continue to be involved.

"Until we see what the actual management plan is that comes forward," Finley added, "I guess we really don't have much more to say about it."

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