Bison Likely On Tribal Land
Decision Expected Friday That Could Affect Fort Peck Reservation
By Samar Fay
Published: Wednesday, December 7th, 2011
The gate on the quarantine pen has swung open and shut a couple of times during the past week, but it looks like 68 Yellowstone bison will be approved for relocation to a temporary new home out on the plains when the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meets on Friday.
FWP issued a decision notice last Wednesday, recommending the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations for the interim placement of the bison, which have been quarantined for about five years at a facility in Corwin Springs near Gardiner, north of the park. They have been tested multiple times and declared to be brucellosis-free.
But on Friday, Gov. Brian Schweitzer blocked the road for these bison, saying he would not allow any wild bison to be moved in Montana because of the possible danger of brucellosis transmission. He was quoted as saying, “I’m not moving any buffalo anywhere – not into quarantine, not out of a quarantine, not to a reservation, not to slaughter, not across the road. Nobody’s moving them, live or dead, or until we have a conclusion here.”
Brucellosis is a disease that can cause miscarriages among pregnant cows, bison and elk, and the potentially dangerous human infection called undulant fever. It has been eradicated in the United States except for in some of the wild animals in the Yellowstone National Park area. The entire state of Montana was put under quarantine a couple of years ago because cattle in the Yellowstone area tested positive for the disease. Over the past 10 years, about 3,600 bison that migrated out of the park in the winter have been killed or captured to prevent their mingling with cattle and spreading disease.
Schweitzer was using this issue to put pressure on the Department of the Interior to accept some Yellowstone bison on the National Bison Range near Moiese. Interior officials rejected that move on Thursday, saying they were concerned about exposing the Moiese animals to brucellosis. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a division of the Department of the Interior, manages the 18,500-acre range and its approximately 400 bison.
The Yellowstone bison to be relocated are part of a study that began in 2004 aimed at determining if bison could be kept free of the bacteria that causes brucellosis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared the quarantined bison to be free of brucellosis, although the management plan for the animals intended for the reservations includes a further five years of regular testing, “out of an excess of caution,” according to Ryan Clarke, an epidemiologist for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
On Monday, Schweitzer said he would not stand in the way of the bison relocation to the reservations because an Interior Department researcher said he believes the animals do not have brucellosis. He still opposes shipping any bison except the quarantined ones, saying that national park officials should allow hunting inside the park to reduce the excess population, which migrates out of the park seeking food in the winter.
Tom Roffe is chief of wildlife health for the FWS in Bozeman. He clarified his concerns about allowing Yellowstone bison onto Moiese, naming three problems. Brucellosis is not one of them. He is reported as saying that the Yellowstone bison could expose the Moiese animals to other animal diseases or parasites. The quarantine study could be compromised if the Yellowstone bison interacted with the other bison. Other states might be hesitant to take the Moiese bison, knowing they had been in contact with Yellowstone bison.
“I know that the (quarantined) bison don’t harbor brucella,” Roffe is quoted as saying. “This is being painted too simply. This is not about brucellosis. This is more about the appropriate way to complete a quarantine feasibility study on brucellosis.”
Two other locations that had been under consideration for the bison, the Marias River Wildlife Management Area near Shelby and the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area near Avon, were dropped after strong opposition from local ranchers and landowners.
Another 143 bison in the quarantine program will remain where they are on Ted Turner’s Green Ranch. These were the bison that Schweitzer wanted to move to the National Bison Range.
Tribal officials are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Yellowstone bison, which are touted as being genetically pure. Robert Magnan, the manager of the Fort Peck tribal bison herd, expects the FWP Commission to approve the recommendation. He has been the Fort Peck fish and game director for 23 years, and has managed the tribal herd since the animals were bought from the Fort Belknap tribes in 2000.
Fort Peck, the home of Assiniboine and Sioux Indians, has a 4,800-acre pasture ready to receive the bison. It is surrounded with a 5-foot game-friendly fence and is a few miles away from the existing tribal herd. All 68 Yellowstone bison would be placed there first, while Fort Belknap fences the 1,900 acres it has set aside for its share of the new herd. These would also be kept separate from the herd that the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes on Fort Belknap already have. The exact number of Yellowstone bison going to each reservation has not been announced.
A memorandum of understanding between FWP and the tribes must be agreed upon, covering the ongoing brucellosis testing, containment expectations, response to escapes and provisions for Montana’s taking some buffalo for future restoration purposes.
“There are a lot of issues and concerns from various landowners,” Magnan said. “There are legitimate concerns about escape, etc. We have liability insurance for this.”
Moving these Yellowstone bison to the reservations is called an interim placement, because the state is working on a comprehensive strategy for the putting Yellowstone bison on suitable habitats. Completion of the study is expected by 2015.
Public comment was taken at three meetings in October, including one in Glasgow, where tribal members expressed their desire to have the big animals on their traditional plains again but ranchers worried about disease, escapes and destruction of crops and hay.
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