By Samar Fay
Whether the Yellowstone bison now living on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation are classified as livestock or wildlife was the subject of debate at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 6 Citizens Advisory Council meeting Tuesday at the Fort Peck Fish Hatchery.
“The designation of bison will be a contentious and hard-fought issue for many years to come,” said Steve Dalbey, the acting FWP Region 6 supervisor.
The memorandum of understanding between FWP and the Fort Peck tribes does not make clear the present or future designation of the bison. It establishes a five-year quarantine period for the bison, during which time FWP controls the animals. If the bison are properly cared for by the tribes during the quarantine, they will then belong to the tribes.
If they escape during the five years, FWP brings them back or gives the tribes permission to do it, said CAC member Jason Holt, reading from the MOU.
“In 2015 when the plan expires, what happens if (bison) cross the line?” he asked.
“After the MOU expires, it’s anybody’s guess,” said FWP Warden Captain Mike Herman. “The bison may or may not become tribal.”
Herman, who was giving the bison report, said there are some assumptions out there. Half of the bison taken to Fort Peck were originally supposed to be transferred to the Fort Belknap Reservation, but any further transfer has been halted by a court order. The Fort Peck and Belknap reservations already own tribal herds of bison, classified as livestock, but they are eager to establish herds from Yellowstone stock, which is described as free of any cattle genes.
Mark Azure, the Fort Belknap tribal game warden, said the tribe doesn’t designate their bison.
“They’re our animals,” he said. “If they’re on or off the reservation damaging property, they’re still our animals. We have insurance and will pay. Why is the Legislature so hung up on the designation of the animals?”
Holt lives on a family ranch just north of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge, which is being eyed as a home for free-roaming bison. He expressed the fears of ranchers that the Yellowstone bison will be declared wildlife.
“If bison have the status of wildlife and they get out, they can’t be put back. We were told those bison would belong to the tribes but they don’t have a bill of sale … If these bison belong to the Fort Peck tribes, we don’t care anymore. But if not, the World Wildlife Fund can say, ‘You have to let this bison go.’ … Now they are a threat to everyone on the Hi-Line. They’re the seed of a free-roaming herd.”
Dalbey said FWP Director Jeff Hagener made it very clear that there are no proposed movements of bison in the near future. Exploration for viable areas for free-roaming bison is on hold and a full EIS would be done before any movement of bison.
Holt said this was the first time he had heard this, and this is the issue that has ranchers closing their land to hunters in protest.
Herman reviewed the quarterly reports on the Yellowstone bison submitted by Robert Magnan, the Fort Peck tribal game warden. On April 12, 2012, 61 bison were brought to the Fort Peck Reservation. The four bulls and 57 cows were all born at the Corwin Springs quarantine facility and repeatedly tested negative for brucellosis. Twenty-three calves were born to the herd that spring and summer. A large fire on Sept. 11, 2012, resulted in the death of six adults and 10 calves that were either killed in the fire or euthanized because they were badly burned. A full-term calf was born in November. Three more adults and three calves were euthanized because of their burn injuries.
Hunters’ guns spooked 18 bison over a cattle guard on Nov. 12 but all the escapees were collected by 11 a.m. the next day.
In February 2013 another calf was born. Another burned cow was euthanized, leaving 51 adults. This spring, 10 calves were born.
Herman said the required testing for brucellosis has not been done yet because of the the lack of a handling facility and the onset of winter weather.
CAC member Mark Peterson of Havre said his big concern was this batch of bison moved here in close connection with the CMR, which has a good elk population. Brucellosis has not been found in these elk, although it is common in Yellowstone elk.