The debate over who manages the National Bison Range has moved out of the courtroom and back to the negotiating table.
A federal judge has OK'd the requests by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to drop an appeal over their 2009 annual funding agreement. Two separate lawsuits challenged the arrangement, and the court found the federal agency hadn't properly followed the National Environmental Policy Act. The arrangement would have allowed Flathead Indian Reservation members to manage bison on the range as well as handle visitor services, fire protection, maintenance and scientific research.
"The Service and CSKT partnership was working well until the district court rescinded the (annual funding agreement)," a news release from the Fish and Wildlife Service stated on Wednesday. "(They) decided it was not in the best interests of the (bison range) to pursue protracted litigation. Instead the Service and CSKT have opted to focus on jointly working toward continuing the federal-tribal partnership."
CSKT spokesman Rob McDonald said he was pleased the Fish and Wildlife Service was interested in working on the partnership outside the courts.
"That's not the best way to serve the animals and landscape we cherish," McDonald said of the lawsuits. "We hope we can close the door on that particular approach and find new ways to make this work."
Refuge manager Dean Rundle said the two sides were in government-to-government talks about how to craft a new agreement.
"We want to do it right, and the tribe wants to do it right," Rundle said. "We don't want another situation where good people are sent home without jobs because people made a mistake."
The National Bison Range Complex also includes the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and Pablo National Wildlife Refuge within the Flathead Reservation. The 18,500-acre bison range between Ravalli and Moiese supports up to 500 bison, as well as elk, deer, antelope, black bear and coyote populations. It has a visitor center and a road network for auto tours.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.