Montana Officials, Feds Negotiate Bison Relocation

Published December 28, 2011

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and federal officials are negotiating proposals to relocate dozens or perhaps hundreds of bison from Yellowstone National Park as an alternative to slaughtering the iconic animals. As the Yellowstone bison population has grown in recent decades, increasing numbers of bison are leaving the park looking for food, in the process endangering the health of nearby livestock.

Disease Threat to Cattle
Many bison are carriers of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that often causes pregnant animals to miscarry. Western ranchers are vigilant against exposing their cattle to bison for fear of brucellosis infecting their herds. As a result, bison that leave Yellowstone National Park in search of food are rounded up and slaughtered.

Although millions of bison roamed North America during the 1800s, the animals had nearly become extinct by the early 1900s. By 1902 only two dozen bison remained in Yellowstone. Under federal protection, the Yellowstone herd has since grown to nearly 4,000 animals.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is considering relocating many Yellowstone bison as an alternative to slaughter. Montana Gov. Schweitzer has indicated he is open to such plans in principle but wants to be sure any such relocation plans do not risk local cattle herds and will be managed in a way that does not cause damage or destruction to local communities.

Schweitzer is proposing extensive testing of bison for brucellosis. Those that are proven to have remained free from exposure will be quarantined and designated as candidates for relocation outside Yellowstone. Candidate locations include the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado, and the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

Pure DNA
Yellowstone bison are prized for relocation because they are among the few remaining bison that remain free of cattle DNA.

“I want to work with you to manage bison numbers and reduce disease prevalence in the Yellowstone herd,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar wrote to Schweitzer. “While the Department of Interior alone cannot resolve this issue, I am willing to look at options of moving Yellowstone bison onto other [Department of Interior] properties.”

Montana officials on December 9 approved the relocation of 68 quarantined bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations. Tribal leaders are excited to receive the bison, and have assumed responsibility for keeping them from escaping onto neighboring lands.

“Those majestic animals have played a very significant part in the history, religion, and culture of our native people on the Fort Peck reservation,” Fort Peck tribal chairman Floyd Azure told the Associated Press. “These bison have sustained our ancestors for thousands of years and they are in need of us returning the favor. We are here to make sure they will always be here for our children.”

“Bison are majestic symbols of the wild and open American West,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Enviroment & Climate News. “Ranchers’ concerns, however, are legitimate. It is good to see state officials and the federal government working together to find solutions that work for ranchers and conservationists alike.”

“It is very important that only brucellosis-free bison are relocated outside Yellowstone,” Lehr emphasized. “Extensive testing is absolutely vital, and a rigorous quarantine program must be in place. Also, those who receive the bison must have proper facilities and management plans to keep the bison from escaping and causing damage to neighboring lands. Bison are difficult to manage, and neighboring property owners want assurance they will not be paying the price for dicey bison experiments.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.