GARDINER, Mont. — Bison managers are thrilled with the movement of five bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and they hope it’s a sign of things to come.
The five bulls arrived at the reservation in February for the final stage of brucellosis quarantine, known as assurance testing. One round of testing was conducted this week, with the help of Yellowstone National Park staff.
Quarantining bison certifies them as free of the disease brucellosis. The disease can cause animals to abort their young and its spread is feared by the livestock industry.
Biologists believe about half of Yellowstone’s bison have been exposed to the disease. As a result, their movements are restricted. Certifying them as brucellosis free allows them to be moved more easily.
“I was up there this week,” said Chris Geremia, a Yellowstone biologist. “I was really excited. I was excited to see bison there.”
And more could be on the way. Geremia said there are roughly 160 more bison enrolled in quarantine between Yellowstone’s two corrals and another facility run by the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and some of those animals could be moved north this year.
Geremia was speaking at a meeting here of the state, federal and tribal government agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan. Several of the people involved heralded the movement of the five as a success, albeit a small one.
Mike Honeycutt, executive officer for the Montana Board of Livestock, said the transfer of bison went so well that “the ranchers of Montana did not march on my office.”
Tribal officials, though, reiterated their desire to be involved in quarantine sooner. Some managers also said the future of the program depends on increasing the number of bison that can be enrolled.
Cam Sholly, the superintendent of Yellowstone, said the park has been thinking about that.
“We are actively searching for new options within this basin,” Sholly said. “I think there’s a willingness to see the quarantine program expanded.”
Tribal governments have received quarantined bison in the past, but the five that moved north in February were the first to go under a quarantine program that’s meant to be around long-term. Park and tribal officials see it as an alternative to shipping bison to slaughter, which happens every year for population control.
The movement of the five came three years after the park first proposed quarantining bison at Fort Peck and about a year after National Park Service officials signed off on a modified version of that plan.
As part of that plan, APHIS enrolled bison from a canceled research project at its Corwin Springs corrals in the program. The five bulls that were moved came from APHIS.
Ryan Clarke, an APHIS veterinarian, said the five bulls would complete their year of assurance testing in October and could then be released or sent to another herd.
Robbie Magnan, the Fort Peck tribes’ bison manager, said they’ve already been using their existing herd to enhance others, and they plan to continue that with the quarantine bison.
“That’s our whole goal with this whole project is to help organizations and tribes that are interested in these animals,” Magnan said.
Yellowstone is holding 58 bulls that it hopes could go to Fort Peck this fall, once they graduate the second part of quarantine. Sending the bulls would free up space for the park to trap and enroll new bison next year.
The park also has 21 female bison, but the quarantine term for females is longer than that of bulls. Females can pass the disease through afterbirth, and the quarantine process requires breeding them and testing their calves before declaring them brucellosis free.
Clarke said APHIS also has some bison that could go to Fort Peck later this year. But he also cast some doubt on the agency’s future involvement in the program, saying that top officials are still deciding whether to participate once their group of bison is gone.
Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck tribes, said April 25 was the first she’d heard that, and that the tribes have been kept in the dark on key developments in the program. She also said the tribes want to conduct part two of the quarantine process, the step before assurance testing that can now only happen in Yellowstone or at Corwin Springs. She agreed that the movement of the five was positive but said keeping the tribes from being involved earlier will limit the number of bison that enter the program.
“The only limit we see is how long it takes to do phase two here,” Russell said.