Tribal Management of National Wildlife Refuges?

Final negotiations to turn over four National Wildlife Refuges to a tribal government began Monday, June 9, in Washington, D.C.

The National Bison Range near Missoula, Montana was established by an Act of Congress on May 23, 1908, thanks to the efforts of local citizens and Teddy Roosevelt who wanted to preserve wild bison. Land for this national refuge was purchased by hundreds of private citizens and school children who raised $47,000 for the initial purchase. Years later, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) filed claims against the federal government to receive more money for the land they had already sold to the federal government. Their claim was approved and the CSKT received an additional $60 million for their land, including millions of dollars for the National Bison Range and additional national refuges.

Now the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes want to take over the total management of these national refuges–refuges that belong to all citizens of the United States. If turn over takes place, it will be precedent-setting for the management of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System. Other tribal governments are waiting for this negotiation to end so they can file for management of other national refuges that border their reservations. Negotiations are proceeding at breakneck speed.

On April 8th, Grady E. Hocutt, the Refugekeeper for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) wrote Honorable Senator Conrad Burns and stated, “This issue is not even one of whether the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes could or should have management responsibility for National Bison Range (NBR) and its affiliates. Rather, it is more a question of the establishment of far-reaching precedents for the fragmentation and eventual dissolution of the rich history and legacy of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) as we know it today…The NWRS represents a legacy of wildlife habitats unlike anything seen on our planet. The National Bison Range complex is one of the crown jewels of the system, and is emblematic of our nation’s turn from waste and non-conservation of many species of plants and animals…You and your other elected federal colleagues in Montana…are truly at a decisional crossroads where we believe the long-term welfare and integrity of the NWRS lies in the balance. Because of the precedent setting nature of your decisions, your handling of this complex issue will have a major impact upon the sort of NWRS that is passed on to Montanans and the nation as a whole. Consequently, we sincerely ask you to view this issue, and similar ones, from the larger perspective of a truly national system of wildlife refuges. It would be helpful and statesmanlike if you and other elected officials were to appeal to officials in the Office of the Secretary of Interior to withdraw these proposals, and all work together to maintain and strengthen the functional integrity and mission of the NWRS.”

People and organizations across the USA need to submit faxed comments opposing this turnover as soon as possible. Final negotiations with the Tribes in Montana might occur as early as June 30. U.S. Senators and Representatives from all states must be contacted immediately. Tell them negotiations with the Confederated Tribes must stop and that similar efforts must be ended.

We cannot just turn over a national heritage and national assets to a government that cannot be held accountable for their actions. There is no reason to give the Tribes any management authority over federal lands. The chief federal negotiator is Paul Hoffman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the U.S. Dept. of Interior. In a recent e-mail, Mr. Hoffman emphasized that negotiations will continue with the Confederated Tribes and he said that no other groups or individuals, including the Montana Congressional Delegation or other interested organizations and individuals, will be allowed to attend or participate in the negotiations.

Please, prepare a very simple letter to President Bush, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Paul Hoffman, your two senators, and your congressional representative.

Fax your messages IMMEDIATELY and also follow up with postal mail but especially with phone calls. You can e-mail the message also, but e-mail has lost effectiveness because of the thousands of messages received by government officials every day.

Here's sample wording:

"Please immediately stop all negotiations between the U.S. Department of Interior and representatives of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation regarding the turn over of management and control of Montana National Wildlife Refuges.

Please hold a Congressional Hearing immediately on this subject. I also urge you to conduct a formal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and not resume negotiations until the EIS and Congressional Hearings are complete."

Please write your letters in your own words! If you belong to any type of local civic or property owners organization or local government, use the group letterhead if possible.

Editor’s Note: Information for this article was forwarded to PERM by United Property Owners (UPO) and Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA)