CHICO HOT SPRINGS, Mont. — The plan to relocate disease-free Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation is at yet another impasse as the tribe and federal agriculture officials can’t come to an agreement that would allow the animals to go to the reservation.
At a meeting of the agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan, an Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service official said there are five bull bison that have graduated two sets of brucellosis testing and could go to the reservation but would need a final phase of testing in captivity before they could be released.
But Fort Peck officials have declined to sign an agreement to bring the animals to them because they say it would prevent them from getting involved in the brucellosis quarantine process at an earlier stage — despite having its own quarantine facility.
The negotiation over whether the Fort Peck Tribes can play a greater role in the quarantine process isn’t in the hands of local officials. Ryan Clarke, the APHIS veterinarian representing the agency at the meeting, said he has no part in negotiating that agreement, and that the tribes would have to deal with his overlords in Washington, D.C.
“I can give you no relief there on how to move that forward,” Clarke said.
Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes, said the handling of the issue being in Washington, D.C. “makes this a political issue and not an issue based on science.”
It’s just the latest breakdown in a years-long slog as the tribe and Yellowstone National Park push for a quarantine program that has been repeatedly stalled by law, political conflict and federal regulations.
The tribes and park officials see such a program as a way to reduce the number of its bison that are slaughtered each year. They also want to use the bison that graduate the program to help enhance existing bison herds or establish new ones. But state and federal agriculture officials and industry representatives worry about potential disease transmission to cattle outside the Yellowstone region, something they say could threaten Montana’s brucellosis-free status.
Brucellosis can cause animals to abort and it was once a significant public health concern. It’s spread primarily through afterbirth. It’s been mostly eradicated, but elk and bison in the Yellowstone area are known to carry it.
Moving bison outside of the Yellowstone region requires that the bison are certified as free of the disease. Becoming disease-free happens through quarantine, a process of holding and testing the animals in specifically-designed facilities and removing any that test positive. How long a bison must stay in quarantine depends on its sex and age.
Yellowstone National Park first proposed quarantining bison at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in January 2016. The Fort Peck Tribes spent about $500,000 building quarantine corrals but political and legal conflicts blocked the establishment of the program.
In 2017, the park decided to turn part of its bison trap near Gardiner into a quarantine facility. APHIS also agreed to enroll some bison it had been using for a birth control study at corrals a few miles north near Corwin Springs. The National Park Service issued final approval of the program earlier this year.
Now, about 141 bison are in some stage of the quarantine process — 80 at Yellowstone corrals, 61 at APHIS corrals.
But the transfer of any of those bison to Fort Peck depends on the tribes’ negotiation with APHIS about which part of the process Fort Peck should be allowed to carry out at its corrals.
The park service’s final decision split the process into three parts — initial testing to weed out any bison showing early signs they might develop the disease, a second round of tests following federal protocols and a round of “assurance testing.”
APHIS has five bison at Corwin Springs that it says could go to the Fort Peck reservation for the assurance testing. But Fort Peck officials want to be involved in the second part and make full use of their quarantine facility.
Russell said she proposed a short-term agreement to APHIS that would allow the tribes to pursue that sort of participation later. APHIS didn’t budge.
“They want us to sign that (agreement) that will make us agree that we will never try to do phase two,” Russell said. “We still believe our facility is far more capable.”
Any solution seems literally miles away, as local APHIS officials said Wednesday that they’re powerless to change the agreement offered by the higher ups.
“They’re really handling this out of Washington, D.C.,” Clarke said. “There’s not a lot of two-way communication on their intent.”
The park and the Montana Department of Livestock are standing by as these negotiations go on, waiting for a deal to be struck.
“The state eagerly awaits the resolution of the issues between APHIS and Fort Peck,” said Mike Honeycutt, executive officer of the Montana Board of Livestock.
Cam Sholly, superintendent of Yellowstone, also wants to see an agreement between the two sides signed. He said he wants to see the program expanded, and that he’s concerned Yellowstone isn’t “creating a pipeline of brucellosis free bison that is predictable.”
The park can’t accept more bison for quarantine this winter, he said, and he wants to look at expanding the program’s capacity in the area around Yellowstone.
“I’d like to explore other quarantine locations,” he said.