Bison transfer will happen ‘in the short term,’ Wenk says

Friday, August 10, 2018
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Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS

Yellowstone National Park staff prepare to load bison for transfer at the Stephens Creek bison pens Jan. 22, 2015.

Outgoing Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said Thursday the proposed transfer of park bison to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck Reservation in northeast Montana is going to happen — and soon.

Wenk made the comments at a wide-ranging press conference, in which he took questions about his upcoming retirement, which is set for Sept. 29. He reflected on his time at the park and discussed what he hopes to accomplish before his departure.

Among his goals are collecting data for a long-term plan to deal with escalating visitation at the park and finalizing agreements for the quarantine and transfer of Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck, rather than shipping them to slaughter.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to transfer bison to the Fort Peck tribes this calendar year or early next calendar year,” said Wenk.

Wenk also expressed sadness that, because he is retiring early, he will not be able to oversee the transfer himself.


Wenk’s retirement

In June, Wenk, who has been Yellowstone superintendent since 2011, submitted a request to retire rather than face reassignment to become regional director of the National Capital Region in Washington, D.C.

In his letter, first reported on by the Washington Post, he requested to stay on until March 30 of next year — a date that would have allowed him far more time at his Yellowstone post than the 60 days he would have to vacate his office after a reassignment order.

However, the Trump administration rejected the request and said Wenk had to leave his post by August or retire right away. The September retirement date was agreed on by officials at the Department of Interior and the National Park Service.

During the Thursday press conference, Wenk said it had long been his intention to retire from Yellowstone.

“Selfishly, I wanted to be standing at Fort Peck with Tribal Chairman (Floyd) Azure and watching bison get off the trucks, because I think it’s a major step in conservation of bison,” he said. “I will not stand at Fort Peck as superintendent of Yellowstone and be able to engage in the excitement when bison are returned to tribal lands.”


Mixed messages

However, Robert Magnan, head of the Fort Peck Fish and Game Department and buffalo ranch, said he’s been getting a lot of mixed messages from the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture about when and whether the transfer will happen.

Mostly, Magnan said, he hasn’t heard much at all.

“We’re waiting for ’em. We’re putting up feed for ’em,” said Magnan, “but we were hoping to get ’em here in November.”

Yellowstone, he said, has been “a very good partner,” but the state and USDA — not so much.

“They say, ‘Yeah, we’ll work with you,’ and that’s all I ever hear,” he said.


Bison background

Yellowstone’s bison transfer plan emerged out of frustration over the number of bison sent to slaughter every year from the park.

The practice of culling the herd is mandated by a lawsuit settlement with the state of Montana, which sued the park in 1995 to protect the cattle industry from brucellosis.

The disease, which was likely brought west by cattle but now infects many Yellowstone bison, can cause abortion in cattle and bison, and many ranchers fear the Yellowstone herd could transmit the disease to cows. There has not, however, been a documented case of bison infecting cattle with brucellosis.

To comply with the lawsuit and to prevent the growing bison herd from roaming outside the park boundaries, the park culls the bison herd with annual hunts and ships many of the animals to slaughter each year. In 2018, the park culled more than 1,100 animals from the herd, which numbered about 4,900 at the end of 2017, including by shipping more than 660 to slaughter.

In 2016, the park completed an environmental assessment for a plan that would ship bison not to slaughter but to the Turtle Mountain Buffalo Ranch on the Fort Peck Reservation.

Under the plan, bison would be shipped to the new, $500,000 quarantine facilities at Fort Peck, where they would remain in isolation until it could be determined that they were brucellosis free. From there, Magnan told MTPR in 2016, 70 percent of the bison would be shipped to other tribes interested in starting herds of their own — including on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.


Plan hits a road block

However, the plan hit a roadblock later that year, when state livestock officials said that bison could not be transferred to the quarantine facility at Fort Peck until after they had been quarantined within the park and proved brucellosis-free.

Now, according to Wenk, the plan hinges on the finalizing of two agreements.

Recently, Wenk said at the press conference, one of the agreements was finalized — between the National Park Service, the state of Montana, and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The second agreement, between the NPS, the state, APHIS, and the Fort Peck tribes, is currently in the works, Wenk said. The main sticking point, according to Wenk, is where the quarantining of the bison will take place — at facilities inside the park, or at the Fort Peck facility.

“How much will have to happen at Yellowstone versus how much can be done at Fort Peck is part of the agreement being discussed,” he said.

Magnan, however, said that if discussions are going on, he hasn’t heard about them.

According to Magnan, the Fort Peck facility is 320 acres — larger than quarantine facilities at the park — and can hold up to 600 bison.

The Fort Peck Reservation is home to two separate American Indian nations, the Lakota (Sioux) and the Assiniboine, both of which lived as nomadic hunters, following and taking their living from the huge bison herds that roamed the Great Plains.

With the westward movement of European settlers, the bison were nearly exterminated — their population reduced from between 30 and 50 million to just 23 in the course of a century.