Private enterprise

The bison is a cultural icon for Native Americans, who lived for centuries alongside the woolly beasts. But an 18-month contract that handed over responsibility for hundreds of Montana bison to nearby tribes on March 15 is anything but a return to tradition, say wildlife professionals who oppose it.

Critics see the controversial deal between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council, based in Pablo, Mont., as part of the current push to privatize federal land and jobs, jeopardizing wildlife by replacing scientists and experts with private contractors. "Our national system is beginning to be broken down and piecemealed away," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Washington D.C.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Refuge managers nationwide have denounced the move to outsource duties formerly handled by the Fish and Wildlife Service as ineffective and costly. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who derailed an early proposal from the tribes, announced March 15 that he intended to ask for a hearing on the National Bison Range agreement, which expires in 2006. By last December more than 100 refuge managers nationwide had signed a four-page memo that said "No refuge manager, no matter how skilled, could successfully implement this agreement as it is written."

The Interior Department, which oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, counters that the tribes will run the refuge well. "Indians at their very core are conservationists," says Paul Hoffman, deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in the Interior Department, who thinks the bison deal "got tied up in an air of uncertainty of what it meant for the future of refuge employees in general."

Subcontracting management marks a sweeping change in the running of about 25,000 acres on the National Bison Range Complex, which intersects with the Flathead Indian Reservation just north of Missoula. The refuge, rolling prairie home to elk and migrating golden eagles, is best known for its annual roundup of 300 to 500 bison, when the animals get medical checkups and surplus buffalo are auctioned.

The 6,500-member Salish and Kootenai tribes will now direct the roundup, along with bird banding, visitor services, fire suppression and fence mending. The deal gives the tribes half the refuge's nearly $1-million budget and 10 staff positions. It also creates a tribal coordinator post to mediate between Native American employees and the refuge manager, who will direct his own staff.

Though the bison agreement appears in step with the Bush administration's interest in subcontracting forest service jobs, the tribes first approached Fish and Wildlife, which runs the refuge, a decade ago. They were spurred by an amendment to the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which entitles some tribes to request work on land with which they have cultural, historic or geographic ties. At least 34 refuge units could qualify for similar deals, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and the Humboldt Bay refuge in California. Only Alaska's Yukon Flats has contracted duties to a local tribe.

Burns, who chairs a congressional panel that funds the Interior Department and Fish and Wildlife, helped shelve the tribes' early proposal, a bid to handle the entire range. Some local residents panicked thinking that casinos or roadways would be built. "If Teddy Roosevelt were alive, he'd be screaming and bellowing like a bull elk," says critic Susan Reneau, a Montana author on big-game hunting and historical figures in the Western U.S.

Anna Whiting Sorrell, former support services director for the tribes, told the Washington Post that the clash stemmed from racial tensions. "They are fearful we will practice discrimination. We will get drunk and decide to go and shoot all the buffalo … all of the stereotypical issues you hear with Native Americans," she said.

Cost estimates for the switch have varied, from an increase of about $47,000 to a savings of $17,000 annually. Other funds include $300,000 for negotiations over the last two years, as the tribes and the government hammered out the agreement's terms. Regional Fish and Wildlife officials are worried the bison range could siphon money from its stations in eight states. "We have no fat to burn," says Matt Kales, Mountain Prairie region spokesman.

Seven Fish and Wildlife employees whose positions fell under tribal control debated for months whether to stay; three of them did.

The Interior Department defends the tribes' management abilities; the Salish and Kootenai already administer their own health services and operate a utility company, Mission Valley Power. "The tribe wants a part in stewarding the bison just like they act as a steward to the rest of the reservation," says Brian Upton, the tribes' lawyer.

Upton says the refuge's 200,000 annual tourists won't notice changes beyond more tribal history in the visitor center. Most of the tribes' 10 wildlife staffers have pitched in during the last decade with federal swan reintroduction and game bird, waterfowl and bald eagle counts.

At least one member of Congress is interested in even more tribal participation in public lands. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), a member of the Indian Affairs committee, proposed legislation for additional tribes to manage refuge resources.

The Interior Department's Hoffman balks at critics' concerns about privatization. "This is not outsourcing. This is a law designed to benefit Indians," he says, insisting the National Bison Range outcry was overblown. "People acted like Chicken Little and thought the sky would fall."