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Long-awaited study furthers effort for NBR partnership

PABLO — The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ 20-year effort to assist with management of the reservation-based Nation Bison Range took a step forward Monday as a long-awaited study was released for public comment.

On August 4, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released for review its draft environmental assessment (EA) of the proposed tribal-federal partnership agreement for operations of the National Bison Range Complex. The partnership is authorized under the United States’ Tribal Self-Governance Act. The Complex is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, which is administered by the Fish & Wildlife Service.

The draft environmental assessment is being released for a 30-day public comment period. It analyzes the proposed agreement between the Service and the Tribes, as well as several alternatives. After reviewing public comment, the Service will finalize the assessment. If no further analysis is found to be necessary, the Service will then make a decision on whether to approve the proposed agreement.

“The National Bison Range occupies a special place not only within the Flathead Indian Reservation, but also within the history and culture of the Tribes,” said Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan. “The Bison Range Complex also includes two Refuges that are located on Tribally-owned land. The Ninepipe and Pablo Refuges are operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service under an easement granted by the Tribes. Regardless of how you approach the issue, partnering with the Tribes makes sense.”

This would be the third Self-Governance agreement at the Complex. The first one was cancelled by the Service in 2006. That cancellation was contested by the Tribes, resulting in a second agreement that was signed by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in 2008. That agreement was later rescinded by a federal court on procedural grounds, with the court finding that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had not adequately explained its invocation of a categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act when it had approved the 2008 agreement.

The CSKT requested negotiations for an AFA in November 2010 under the authority of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, as amended. The Service then developed the draft AFA to explore a more full partnership agreement with CSKT that would allow the Tribes to take part in the refuge programs that are of special geographic, historical, or cultural significance.

The draft environmental assessment being released seeks to provide a fuller analysis for the Service’s decision regarding the new agreement it has negotiated with the Tribes.

In response to allegations from groups who have long opposed the bison range partnership, the Interior Office of Inspector General investigated the claims and the OIG found the claims to be without merit.

Support for the tribal-federal partnership has come from many sources including the National Wildlife Federation, other conservation groups, elected officials, and a September 3, 2003 New York Times editorial that states a new Bison Range partnership will add to the public’s enjoyment of the crown jewel refuge.

“The National Bison Range Complex includes important parts of the Flathead Indian Reservation ecosystem,” said Tom McDonald, Manager of CSKT’s Fish, Wildlife, Recreation Conservation Division. “We look forward to once again working closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service under a Tribal Self-Governance agreement.”

“We always think that it’s important to involve stakeholders in the process of deciding how to best manage our shared natural resources, in this case the locally- and nationally-known National Bison Range,” said Will Meeks, Mountain-Prairie Region assistant regional director for Refuges. “Both citizens and Tribal members with an opinion on how the National Bison Range will be managed are invited to comment on the draft environmental assessment during the thirty-day comment period.”

The document can be downloaded from the refuge complex’s website at www.fws.gov/bisonrange. Comments should be specific and reference the relevant document section where possible. Comments may be submitted by email to bisonrange@fws.gov or mailed to National Bison Range, 58355 Bison Range Rd., Moiese, MT 59824. All comments must be emailed or postmarked by September 3, 2014.

For more information please contact Jeff King, National Bison Range, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 58355 Bison Range Road, Moiese, MT 59824 or call 406-644-2211, ext. 210.

Editor’s Note: This article contains material from an August 4 Fish and Wildlife Service press release.

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