Talks with tribes restarted 

As recently as late November, an agreement between the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to jointly manage the National Bison Range seemed far away, but talks have now resumed.

After the FWS abruptly suspended its original agreement with the tribe in late 2006, the tribes and the Montana Human Rights Network complained of racial prejudice at the FWS and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an environmental group opposed to the agreement.

But just when hope for a resolution seemed lost, in November FWS Assistant Secretary Lyle Laverty sent a memo to the regional director in charge of the Bison Range demanding a management agreement with the tribes by March 28.

On January 16 and 17, the tribes and the FWS restarted their talks. As part of their effort to smooth things over, both parties have agreed to issue joint press releases regarding the ongoing negotiations. The first report from the talks says, “Significant progress was made this week.”

The joint statement also addresses concerns that a management agreement between the FWS and the tribes would represent a deliberate move toward private management of the nation’s public lands.

“The forming partnership between the Service and CSKT is a government-to-government relationship and should not be mistaken as a step toward privatization of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” the press update says.

Nevertheless, PEER Director Jeff Ruch says he’s still troubled by the negotiations.

“The essential problem was framed by the press release,” Ruch says. “The question is how you can have a government-to-government agreement in which one government oversees the other?”

The FWS has never negotiated any similar agreements for joint management of other public lands, and according to Ruch, the agency has no established policy on how to frame such an agreement. “There are some 76 other parks and refuges around the country that are eligible for the same deal,” he says. “You would think that with something that’s this precedent-setting, they would have a clear idea of what it is they will or will not cede.”
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