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This Land Is Your Land?

Two Indian tribes try to take over a national wildlife refuge. Conservationists are concerned.

12:00 AM, Jul 17, 2003 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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ONGOING NEGOTIATIONS over who will manage the National Bison Range, a national wildlife refuge in Moiese, Montana, are making some people uneasy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior, currently manages the Bison Range, located within the Flathead Indian Reservation. But leaders of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian tribes believe that they should assume management of this and several other refuges (the Ninepipe and Pablo national wildlife refuges and parts of the Northwest Montana Wetland Management District), all of which fall within reservation boundaries.

The tribes' argument stems from the 1994 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act Amendments, which say that if self-governing tribes prove "historical, cultural and geographic links" to federal properties listed in the Federal Register, they can be eligible to manage those lands.

The tribes believe they have a link. Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, told the Washington Post that in 1908 Theodore Roosevelt created a refuge for the nearly extinct bison, cutting 18,000 acres out of the heart of the tribes' reservation and paying them $1.56 an acre.

But despite this cultural link, conservationists are apprehensive. For one thing, the potential management transfers are not confined to Montana. The Federal Register currently lists 41 national wildlife refuges and 34 national parks for which annual funding agreements may be negotiated for tribal management. If approved, the Salish and Kootenai would be the first tribes in the country to be granted a management transfer, setting a precedent for other tribes to submit proposals for federal consideration.

Paul Hoffman, a deputy assistant secretary of the interior, insists that the refuges would remain federal assets, with the Fish and Wildlife Service maintaining oversight of all "inherently governmental duties." But it is unclear which responsibilities would be relinquished to the tribes and who would have final say on matters of conservation. Hoffman told the Washington Post that "each negotiation is independent, based on the facts of that unit and that specific tribe."

"My personal view is that this will only lead to more problems and lots of hard feelings over time," says Terry Z. Riley, director of conservation at the Wildlife Management Institute. Under tribal management, Indian Americans will be given preference for jobs, a prospect that has many envisioning the harassment and firing of non-Indian employees. "[Tribal members] may isolate the few fish and wildlife employees already working on the refuges," Riley predicts. "They can make life miserable for federal employees and their families." Tribal chairman Matt told the Associated Press that such fears are unfounded, though he acknowledged that the tribes will work to boost American-Indian employment.

Others worry about the very nature of the negotiations: Since they began in February, almost all of them have been conducted behind closed doors. This leaves "ample fodder for speculation," says Evan Hirsche, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association (NWRA). "The DOI must be open about this." Yet Paul Hoffman, who has been overseeing the talks, insists that "No decisions can be made outside public discourse."

Susan Reneau, the Missoula, Montana-based author of 19 conservation and hunting books, hosted a June 3 public hearing on the issue. "Tribal leaders actually admitted [during the hearing] that they were thinking of increasing tourism at the National Bison Range by paving a parking lot--even though it already has an entrance--and building a gift shop," she said. She fears large chunks of habitat could be eliminated.

"In most legal cases, the tribes are self-directed and can make and enforce their own laws," Riley says, wondering what will happen when federal hunting and fishing laws conflict with the laws of the tribes.

Hirsche believes that tribes should be able to assist with refuge operations but that "refuges need to be managed consistent with laws and regulations governing a national system of lands and waters." The idea that national parks and refuges should be managed as a system, not individually, doesn't jibe with Hoffman's statements that each tribal negotiation is to be considered independent, based on the unique facts and situation of that specific tribe.