Transfer of park bison to Ft. Peck hits another roadblock

Joseph Bullington —
Thursday, November 29, 2018
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Enterprise photo by Nate Howard

Bison gather Feb. 25 on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, near Gardiner, a few hundred yards from U.S. Forest Service land where they are hunted. In the background is the Yellowstone River and U.S. Highway 89 South.

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A bison wallows in a dust bath in Yellowstone National Park Oct. 19.

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Photo by Jim Peaco/Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park staff corral bison in Stephens Creek bison quarantine facility on Jan. 22, 2015.

It feels “like it’s a blackmail situation” — that’s how a representative for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes described an agreement the federal government requires the tribes to sign before it will allow the transfer of bison from a brucellosis quarantine facility near Yellowstone National Park to a quarantine facility on the Fort Peck Reservation.

Majel Russell, an attorney for the tribes and the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, made the comments Wednesday at the fall meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan partners at Chico Hot Springs

At the meeting, P. Ryan Clarke, a regional epidemiologist for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the five bull bison at APHIS’s Corwin Springs facility had “graduated” from phase two of the three-stage quarantine process and were “looking for somewhere to go” to complete the stage three “assurance testing.”

“We stand ready to take these five bulls at any point,” Russell responded, “but I guess we’re very confused.”

Before APHIS will approve the transfer of the five bulls to Fort Peck for phase three, the agency requires that the tribes sign an agreement that would preclude them from ever conducting phase one or phase two of the process, said Russell in an interview with The Enterprise.

“The tribes have refused to sign it because it says that,” she said. The tribes proposed a one-time agreement that would allow them to receive the five bulls for stage three testing while they negotiated a longer-term solution, but APHIS refused the offer, she said.

At the meeting, Clarke said he could not offer relief and that the decisions were being made in Washington, D.C.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said he supports the quarantine program and hopes to expand it. He expressed concern that the park is not “creating a pipeline of brucellosis-free bison” to tribes.

The quarantine facilities at Stevens Creek and Corwin Springs are at capacity, and Sholly said IBMP partners need to consider where they can build more quarantine facilities in the Yellowstone area “so we’re not just talking about 75 or 100 bison every three years, so we can really get those numbers up.”

Tribal advocates like Russell think some of that additional quarantine space already exists — at the new, $500,000 quarantine facility built by the tribes at Fort Peck, which is bigger than both the Stevens Creek and Corwin Springs facilities.

“We’re ready to do the entire quarantine — phase one, phase two and phase three,” said Russell. “If they’re not willing to do that, it’s really just an empty effort at conservation.”

Russell said she thinks APHIS and the Montana Department of Livestock think the entire quarantine process should occur in the “designated surveillance area” around the park. If bison are transferred from the park to Fort Peck, she said, the agencies worry that it will compromise the brucellosis-free status of the state of Montana.

“Sure, (Fort Peck is) within the geographical boundary of the state,” she said. “But Fort Peck is an Indian reservation so the state of Montana really has no jurisdiction there at all.”

APHIS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The plan to quarantine and transfer bison from Yellowstone National Park to Fort Peck and other tribes emerged out of frustration over the number of bison sent to slaughter every year from the park.

The practice of culling the park bison 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 4,800 in the summer of 2017, including by shipping more than 660 to slaughter. This winter, they plan to cull between 600 and 900 head from the herd, which came in at about 4,500 during the 2018 summer count.

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.

“Many scientists consider Yellowstone bison to be the only ecologically and genetically viable population of plains bison within their original range in North America,” writes the Park Service in the EA. “To preserve the species, there is a need to establish additional wild, wide-ranging populations that are subject to forces of natural selection.”

Under the plan, bison would be quarantined at the Stevens Creek facility in the park, the Corwin Springs facility, and the facility at Fort Peck. The bison would undergo a threestage and years-long quarantine process until it could be determined that they were brucellosis free.

From the Fort Peck facility, many of the bison would be shipped to other tribes interested in starting herds of their own.

“We want to preserve the Yellowstone buffalo because they have the genetics,” said Russell. “Buffalo are sacred to Native people.”