POLSON, Mont. – Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is asking the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the federal government to put the brakes on an agreement to share management of the National Bison Range.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Interior, Burns on Thursday asked officials to “slow this process down and move forward with slow and thoughtful deliberation.”
The letter follows the release of documents this week showing that tribal and federal officials hoped to sign the funding agreement Nov. 12, just eight days after an extended public comment period ends.
In his letter, Burns said officials also planned to meet Nov. 5 to discuss moving the agreement quickly to Congress. Federal lawmakers have 90 days to review the pact, which would automatically take effect if they take no action on it.
Officials hope to divide up bison range management by early next year.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Paul Hoffman told The Missoulian on Thursday that the Nov. 12 signing date was set prior to a decision to extend the public comment period through Nov. 4, and that the date was not “written in stone.”
Burns told Hoffman in his letter he didn’t understand how the Department of Interior could thoroughly review public comments on the plan in less than 24 hours and sign the agreement so quickly.
“It does not appear possible to know what the new comments say in just a few hours,” Burns wrote. “Any time something is rushed through, it has the possibility of appearing to have a fixed outcome.”
Burns also stressed in his letter that the process of crafting an agreement should be open to the public.
Under the proposed agreement, tribes would assume some management responsibilities on the bison range, and gain control of specific other federal properties now administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Original estimates put the five-year cost of implementing the agreement at $300,000 to $500,000. But new estimates range from a cost of no more than $237,000 to a possible savings of $17,000 over five years. That figure includes fixed costs of $23,000 the government knows it must pay in the first year.
The 18,500-acre federal wildlife refuge sits about 30 miles south of Polson. Bison numbers range from 350 to 500 head, and the fall roundup to cull certain animals has become a significant tourist attraction.