Bison Range lawsuit settled

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it will be moving forward with environmental review to consider returning the National Bison Reserve to the Flathead Indian Reservation. (Jeremy Weber/Lake County Leader)

Planning for the National Bison Range’s future looks set to move forward, now that a two-year-old lawsuit has been settled.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2016, when the agency was considering transferring the range, home to an estimated 350 bison, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

But after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke backed away from this proposal and the service agreed to prepare a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the settlement, the Maryland-based environmental group settled.

“We are delighted to sign this settlement. Now it’s time to stop litigating and start building for the future,” said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein in a statement.

The Range’s herds “are some of the most [genetically] pure bison in the country,” she explained, adding that U.S. bison management “would be difficult to do if it weren’t part of the refuge system.”

The National Bison Range occupies 18,800 acres north of Ravalli. Together with five other territories in and near the Flathead Reservation, it forms the National Bison Range Complex, a National Wildlife Refuge administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

For years, managing these lands has caused friction between the service, conservationists, and the tribes, who argued that the refuge’s 1908 creation amounted to the taking back of treaty-given lands. Fish and Wildlife officials have recently discussed converting the refuge into trust land for the tribes, who would also manage the area.

PEER filed suit, making two main arguments. First, it claimed that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to complete an environmental impact statement required for the legislation that would allow the transfer to proceed.

Second, it argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to complete a comprehensive conservation plan (CCP), as required by law. It sought injunctions requiring the service to craft such a plan and preventing the transfer from going through.

At the time of the lawsuit, the Tribes insisted that the range would remain open to the public in the event of a transfer.

“We have never opposed a tribe participating in a refuge in ways that are within legal limits,” Dinerstein argued. “and the legal limits basically say that the Fish and Wildlife Service is managing that refuge.”

As PEER’s case sat in U.S. District Court, the Fish and Wildlife Service aligned its actions with the group’s goals. In January 2017, it sought public comment for a CCP, which would guide management activities on the range for 15 years. In keeping with the normal rule-making process, the agency also set forward some alternative courses of action, the “preferred” of which was a transfer to the tribes.

In April, the Department of the Interior announced that a majority of comments “were against the preferred alternative,” and that Zinke had “changed course” on the issue. A Federal Register notice published the following month clarified that “we will not proceed with evaluating a preferred alternative of legislative transfer” of the range.

PEER stated that these actions advanced both of the lawsuit’s goals. Under the settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service will pay the group $50,000 as reimbursement for legal fees, and complete a CPP for the range by Jan. 31, 2023, following the processes established by the National Environmental Policy Act.

“We’re happy with it taking this much time, because we want it to be a really good, in-depth plan,” Dinerstein explained. “They have agreed to a very structured process that’s transparent to the public as to how they’re going to do this conservation plan.”

In addition to the National Bison Range Plan mandated by the settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service is also crafting a CCP for the larger complex, slated for completion in 2020.

In a press release, Tribal Chairman Ronald Trahan voiced satisfaction with the outcome. “We look forward to working with [the Service} on the Plans, as well as on the related environmental analyses.”

However, Tribal Communications Director Robert McDonald, noting that PEER did not request plans for the other refuges in the Complex, argued that “PEER does not appear to be as concerned about the natural resources at the other three Refuges in the Complex.” (The Fish and Wildlife Service says it will “separately consider” plans for the other units).

Whatever disagreements still linger between the tribes and this group, Dinerstein is hopeful for more collaboration moving forward. “The Bison Range has been pretty sorely neglected,” she said, citing reduced funding, staffing levels, and visitor center hours. “It has not been treated as the jewel that it is...We view the conservation [plan] process as a first step towards restoring the refuge as it should be.”

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Ryan Moehring said that the public would be able to review draft materials for the Complex conservation plan at https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/refuges/nbrc.php sometime this spring. Under the terms of the settlement, the National Bison Range plan and environmental impact statement drafts will be completed by July 31, 2022.

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