Bozeman and Southwest Montana | Montana's News Leader®

Yellowstone bison not headed to tribes anytime soon

PRAY, Mont. – Fort Peck Tribal leaders say they don’t expect to see Yellowstone bison sent to their reservation before the end of the year.

It looks like a years-long effort to ship some of the bison to native communities, rather than to slaughter, seems to be stalled again.

For decades Yellowstone National Park has struggled with how to control its bison population. Some bison are killed by a few state and tribal hunters as they leave the park in search of food in the winter months, but hundreds more are captured and sent to slaughter.  

This has led tribal officials and even former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to attempt to relocate some of the animals to Fort Peck tribal lands in northeast Montana.

“We’re very frustrated,” said Fort Peck tribal lawyer Majel Russell. “Fort Peck Tribes have spent over a million dollars on this effort and that’s their demonstrated commitment to preserving Yellowstone bison for the genetics.”

Yellowstone bison are some of the only bison in the world known to have pure genetic lineage, not mixed with cattle, to the historic bison that once roamed the North American plains by the millions.

“Clearly we believe that yes, there is stonewalling to get live bison out of the park and to tribes,” Russell said.

At a meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan Partners, Mike Honeycutt, the Chief Executive of the Montana Department of Livestock said the state is eager to set up a pipeline to move bison from the park to the tribes but wants to make sure all federal requirements are met. Tribal officials claim those requirements keep changing and delaying the effort.

“We’ve heard from some local sources that those animals have been in quarantine long enough that they can be certified disease-free by the state of Montana and allowed to enter the state legally, but we’re hearing from Washington D.C. that they need additional testing,” said Russell.

Ryan Clarke with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service says there is little communication from his superiors in Washington, where the final decisions on moving the animals will be made. That’s where the decision was made to require continued testing and a quarantine of the animals even after they are shipped to Fort Peck.

“They’re really handling this out of Washington D.C.,” said Clarke, APHIS Veterinarian Epidemiologist.

“The actual maintenance of those animals in a separate pasture completely away from the rest of the herd would be costly,” Russell said.

State and federal officials say the concern is that bison could transmit brucellosis to cattle, a disease that causes fetuses to abort.  APHIS says bison led to the infection of North Dakota and Wyoming cattle with brucellosis in the past. But in Yellowstone, only elk have been known to carry the disease to cattle.

Both the APHIS and National Park facilities built to hold bison in quarantine to determine if they are brucellosis-free are filled to capacity.  That means if bison wander out of the park in search of food this winter, they will have to be sent to slaughter since there is nowhere to house them.

John Sherer

John Sherer

Grew up in the lake country of far northern Wisconsin, worked as a radio news anchor in Wisconsin, as a correspondent for the Milwaukee Sentinel, as Senior Producer at WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin and as Executive Producer and News Director at KBZK-TV in Bozeman, Montana. Am an avid canoeist.
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