National wildlife refuge managers have lodged a protest against a proposed deal that calls for the federal government to share management of the National Bison Range in Montana with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Under the terms of the draft annual funding agreement (AFA), the 18,500-acre range would remain under federal ownership, but certain management responsibilities would be ceded to the tribes.

Tribal representatives and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have held private negotiations for more than a year amid opposition from local residents and conservationists. The agreement is now subject to an extended 15-day public comment period.

Some critics fear the move could lead to federal employees being displaced by tribal workers; others have voiced concern that the agreement could set a precedent for wider privatization of federal parks and reserves.

The proposed deal allows the Salish and Kootenai tribes to take responsibility for some of the federal agency's activities at the range, including a wildlife program, fire protection, maintenance and visitor services, during fiscal 2005.

The agreement was negotiated under the 1994 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which allows qualified tribes to request to manage activities administered by the Interior Department that are of "special geographic, historical and cultural significance" to a tribe.

Nineteen wildlife refuges and 34 national parks are eligible for similar agreements, including 10 in Alaska and Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

"There could not be a clearer case under the statute of something that is culturally or geographically affiliated with a tribe than the National Bison Range. We think we have a good agreement," said Craig Manson, assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in the Interior Department.

In a letter to Bison Range and Interior officials released by the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), 23 wildlife refuge managers dismissed the draft agreement as "unworkable," arguing that it did not adequately address budgets, costs and management issues. PEER declined to release the names of the managers.

"The agreement as written is too broad and comprehensive and lacks the specificity needed to make it work, or even to support a meaningful review," the letter said. "No refuge manager, no matter how skilled, could successfully implement this agreement as it is written."

"This has nothing to do with the fact that this is a Native American group; it's about whether this is wise stewardship of federal land, and the answer to that is absolutely not," said Grady Hocutt, a former refuge manager and director of PEER's refuge program.

Tribal officials said federal staff working at the National Bison Range had participated in the negotiations leading up to the agreement.

"We've worked at this with the regional office and staff for well over a year, and we've come to the conclusion that we can have an AFA that's successful for us and the Fish and Wildlife Service," said Fred Matt, chairman of the Salish and Kootenai. Last week, figures released by the Fish and Wildlife Service showed that the estimated cost of implementing the agreement could be lower than expected.

The initial 90-day comment period expired last Tuesday but was extended to allow consideration of the revised cost estimates. After review by the agency and the tribes, it will be forwarded to Congress for another 90-day review before implementation. Interior spokesman Hugh Vickery said the agency will consider all the issues raised during the comment period.

"This is a draft, and like any draft, you want to lay everything on the table and try to come up with a better agreement," Vickery said. "That's the goal here -- to find an agreement that works for the refuge, for the Fish and Wildlife Service and for the tribes."

Bison feed at Montana's National Bison Range, where local tribes may take over some management responsibilities.