FWS releases tribal agreement

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new shared management agreement for the National Bison Range designed to increase the role of the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The environmental assessment, published Aug. 5, comes on the heels of two failed attempts in the past decade to enact a similar Annual Funding Agreement on the 26,604-acre complex near Moiese and, in the words of tribal spokesman Rob McDonald, "paves the way for a bright future."

According to the EA, the goal is to "allow CSKT to design, manage and implement the biology, visitor services, fire and maintenance program on the National Bison Range Complex." The tribes requested that negotiations begin on a third agreement back in November 2010, shortly after a U.S. District Court judge rescinded an agreement implemented in 2009. The court reached that ruling based largely on procedural grounds regarding FWS's compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

"It didn't have anything to do with the merits of the agreement itself," says CSKT tribal attorney Brian Upton.

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The tribes' desire to enter a partnership with FWS on the bison range dates back roughly 20 years, and in April 2003, CSKT sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior requesting that negotiations commence for an Annual Funding Agreement. That 18-month agreement went into effect in 2005, but, according to FWS, as the expiration date approached the following year, the agency's regional director halted discussions about a new agreement.

Now the tribes and FWS are poised to build on the success cut short by the court four years ago. Upton says the current draft agreement will bring CSKT "back to the bison range" and is "largely similar" to the one rescinded in 2010.

"The tribes are really happy to see the draft EA finally being released," Upton says. "We've been working with the service on this for over two years, so we're very happy to see the next step being taken."

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