Raid on the National Bison Range

By Susan Campbell Reneau 406-251-5116 or bluemountain@montana.com Date of this Article: March 21, 2007 Those of us living in Montana think of the National Bison Range just north of Missoula as “ours” and “local.” It is anything but ours and local. It belongs to ALL Americans as one of America’s first national wildlife refuges. The National Bison Range Complex was established in 1908 by Act of Congress and signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. It is one of the first 52 original refuges begun by this dynamic “conservation” president. It is the first ever purchased by act of Congress. The taxpayers of America and private donors paid the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) TWICE for the land at fair market value that became this national wildlife refuge; once in 1909 and again in 1971 for a total exceeding $3 million for about 18,900 acres. The 34 original wild bison were paid for after $10,000 was raised through private donation and given to a rancher in Kalispell who had purchased the bison from a CSKT rancher at fair market value. The CSKT was then paid many times again throughout the years by sportsmen’s dollars when they bought federal duck stamps. Money from duck stamps was spent buying conservation easements that established Ninepipe and Pablo NWRs for waterfowl production areas at fair market value so, thanks to hunters, the CSKT were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Hunters have the most to lose in this deal with the CSKT if it goes through. The non-competitive contract with the CSKT takes “inherently federal” jobs and tasks away from trained scientists and professionals of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that have done the work there since 1908. These are jobs and tasks with specific qualifications and duties assigned to a particular title and people who apply for these jobs must have the education, training and experience to be hired for them. Most people who work at national refuges take lesser jobs than their experience and education level just to “get their foot in the door.” Most of the USFWS employees have been stationed at this national refuge complex for more than 20 years. Many are ranchers in the Mission Valley or spouses of ranchers. One of the longest and finest employees is a CSKT member who lost a chance at promotion because of the contract with the CSKT, government of the Flathead Indian Reservation. When the CSKT government demanded control of the entire National Bison Range Complex in March of 2006 after poorly performing in their first contract for 2005, the USFWS said no and informed them they could negotiate for the same type of contract as 2005 but nothing more since the first contract went before Congress and the public for comment and debate, as required by law. The CSKT government refused to listen to the USFWS and went to Jim Cason and Lynn Scarlett of the U.S. Dept. of Interior (DOI), thus bypassing Congress and the public. The USFWS also told the CSKT that what they proposed broke many federal laws that protect national refuges from contractors that do a poor job or try to take away “inherently federal” jobs and tasks. Again, the CSKT bypassed the USFWS and negotiated with the DOI using their highly paid lobbyist, lawyer, and others in the CSKT leadership. The CSKT, you see, have at least $378 million in the bank and CSKT members that talk to me tell me the bank assets off shore total in the BILLIONS, with a “B.” Added to all of this is the fact that DOI’s Jim Cason advertises in the current Federal Register, shopping book for contractors wishing to work for any federal agency, that he wants to see various Indian governments to receive similar contracts at 53 national parks, including Glacier, Redwood, Mt. Rainier, Olympic, Cape Cod Seashore, most of the national parks in Alaska, and Carlsbad Cavern…for starters. Additionally, Mr. Cason wants Indian governments to receive contracts like the one at the National Bison Range for at least 30 more national wildlife refuges beyond the National Bison Range Complex, including all the national wildlife refuges in Alaska, representing 75% of all the land that is in the National Wildlife Refuge System…for starters. You see, the National Bison Range contract with the CSKT is the FIRST contract Mr. Cason and officials from the DOI want to apply to ALL national parks and national wildlife refuges. DOI picked the CSKT because they thought they would do the best job to showcase this program of turnover, but, unfortunately for the DOI, the CSKT has proven itself a poor contractor as evidenced by their evaluations in 2005 and 2006. Media have reported on just how badly the CSKT have done in their first two contracts. The complete 2006 evaluation of the CSKT is posted on the KPAX-T.V. website right now. President George W. Bush nominated and Congress approved USFWS Director Dale Hall two years ago, and in December, Mr. Hall told the CSKT to permanently leave the National Bison Range and stop negotiating with the USFWS because of violent and verbal threats to USFWS employees and poor care of wild bison, as well as their overall poor work performance. The project leader of the National Bison Range Complex, Steve Kallin, was physically and verbally attacked as he tried to discuss mistreatment of wild bison by the CSKT. The CSKT flew to Washington, D.C. and complained directly to Mr. Cason who, with Lynn Scarlett, overturned Mr. Hall’s termination and ordered the USFWS to begin negotiating with the CSKT for total take over of the National Bison Range in late December. Mr. Cason has never been Senate confirmed for his position, and he has been a DOI official for more than 20 years, working behind the scenes until I called his actions to light. He functions as number 3 in command at the Department of Interior. The CSKT contract and negotiation process that bypasses a President Bush-appointed/Senate confirmed USFWS Director Hall breaks the following federal laws, according to sportsmen and conservation groups and the USFWS: 1966 National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act, its 1976 amendment known as the Game Range Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Service Commission, the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan) have demanded investigations and a GAO audit. The DOI Inspector General continues a formal investigation right now and an EEOC investigator concluded that the behavior and poor work ethics of the CSKT contractors was the worse he had ever seen in his 30 years of doing such investigations. The jury is still out as to what will happen next but you can make a difference by speaking up. WHAT CAN YOU DO? LOTS!!! Call Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne and tell him to support USFWS Director Dale Hall in his correct decision to permanently terminate the contract with the CSKT at the National Bison Range Complex. His direct phone number is 202-208-7351. Fax a short note to him, too, because Mr. Cason told sportsmen’s groups and National Bison Range employees in January that “he hadn’t seen any letters or comments against the contract.” Mr. Kempthorne’s fax is 202-208-6956. Thousands of letters and comments have been filed objecting to this CSKT contract, but DOI wants to ignore them. Don’t let them. Call and fax USFWS Dale Hall with your support at 202-208-4717 and fax the comments you sent to Mr. Kempthorne to Mr. Hall so no one can say “we didn’t see them.” Fax number for Mr. Hall is 202-208-6965. Demand from Rep. Denny Rehberg and Rep. John Dingell that this CSKT contract be permanently terminated for the reasons I listed in the article, and thank Mr. Dingell for demanding that the laws of the land be followed. Call Mr. Rehberg in Missoula at 406-543-9550 and fax him at 406-543-0663. Call Mr. Dingell at 202-225-4071 and fax the comments sent to Mr. Kempthorne to him at 202-226-0371. Call or e-mail Susan Campbell Reneau if you have questions or comments at 406-251-5116 or bluemountain@montana.com. She has followed this unfolding tragedy since 2003 and writes about it on the national level in hunting and conservation magazines. She is the author and editor of 21 books on hunting and wildlife conservation, and an award-winning magazine, newspaper, and radio journalist since 1978.