MOIESE, Mont. — An effort to have two Indian tribes assist government officials in operating a federal wildlife refuge that is surrounded by their reservation has collapsed amid accusations of racism, harassment, intimidation and poor performance. But top federal officials say they are determined to resurrect it.
The plan for the tribes and the government to jointly run the National Bison Range in western Montana, just north of Missoula, had long been viewed as unworkable by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Interior branch that manages wildlife refuges.
But top Interior Department officials say that despite the objections, they are committed to transferring some responsibility for the range from the wildlife service to a tribal government.
“There’s a shared sense of mission between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the tribes,” said Shane Wolf, a department spokesman.
Representative Denny Rehberg, Republican of Montana, asked the Government Accountability Office and the House Resources Committee in late January to investigate the disagreement and the problems plaguing the range. Among them is whether political appointees at the Interior Department pressured the wildlife service into the pact. The department’s inspector general and its Office of Equal Opportunity are also investigating.
The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 allows tribal involvement in the management of federal lands, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which have strong cultural links to bison, wanted the authority to manage the refuge.
The Fish and Wildlife Service opposed ceding control over the bison range, and the Interior Department and tribal officials decided to split the mission. The federal government maintained management authority but hired members of the tribes to feed and care for the bison. Federal managers, who did not have authority over the tribal workers, had to ask a tribal manager to relay orders.
The project leader at the range, Steve Kallin of the wildlife service, said tribal employees failed to do their assigned tasks and that this led to the cancellation of the agreement.
For example, Mr. Kallin said, tribe members failed to feed the bison properly in preparation for their transfer to another refuge, at which point, he said, the wildlife service resumed responsibility for feeding.
Tribal employees also did not maintain fences, Mr. Kallin said, allowing bison to wander into pastures that were being rested from grazing.
Wildlife agency employees also said that relations grew strained and that tribal employees started to threaten them. They also said they felt excluded because tribal employees prayed together during work hours. The wildlife agency hired a retired special agent-in-charge of the National Park Service for the Rocky Mountain region, Jim Reilly, to look into the situation.
Mr. Reilly’s findings, which were not made public but appeared on a Web site run by a group opposed to tribal management, supported many of the federal employees’ accusations. Mr. Reilly wrote that work conditions at the range “were as bad as he had ever seen in his career,” according to a letter from the service’s deputy regional director, Jay Slack, to the regional director that cited the investigation.
Tribal officials denied many of the accusations and said they were surprised by the list of complaints. Cancellation of the agreement “came completely out of the blue,” said the chairman of the tribal confederation, James Steele Jr. “We didn’t know until the day that they did it.”
While he was aware of some problems, Mr. Steele said, he thought they were being dealt with.
A lawyer for the tribe, Brian Upton, said tribal officials did not allow Mr. Reilly to interview members who worked at the range “because they never told us why they were investigating us.”
“We do not have any corroborating details for any of the complaints,” Mr. Upton said.