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mikeleahy | Dec 15, 2010 12:00 AM

Sixty-three bison sit in limbo just outside Yellowstone National Park, waiting for a new place to call home.

The Yellowstone bison are some of the only genetically pure bison remaining in the United States, a small remnant of the historic herds that thundered across the Great Plains by the millions just a few centuries ago. More importantly, they could be the key to restoring vast tracts of prairie ecosystem to its former glory.

But first, these bison must clear a lingering political hurdle that has left them out in the cold.

Winter bison

Bison in Yellowstone winter. Image courtesy Flickr user Jason Hickey.

Bison that leave the safety of Yellowstone are routinely captured, quarantined and tested for brucellosis—an infectious disease first brought to the region by cattle and now found in both bison and elk in and around the park. Ranchers just outside the park boundaries fear that infected animals will transmit brucellosis to their livestock (even though there is no evidence that transmission from bison is a real risk) and have effectively lobbied to keep bison from roaming freely outside the park.

During particularly harsh winters when bison are forced to leave the park in search of food, they are hazed back into the park by federal agents using helicopters, snowmobiles, horses and vehicles, or they're simply killed. In the winter of 2007-2008, a record 1,600 bison were killed--the largest number since the 1800s. Unless something is done to accommodate bison during tough winters, the same thing is bound to happen again.

In 2005, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) began an experiment to quarantine bison that migrate outside the park, with the goal of providing brucellosis-free bison to start new conservation herds elsewhere. Once given a clean bill of health, bison would be transported to tribal, federal or state public lands to establish new, wild herds.

However, when the first batch of 87 quarantined Yellowstone bison were available in February 2010, no tribal, federal or state land managers were quite ready to accept them.  It was then that media mogul-turned-bison rancher Ted Turner stepped up. He agreed to house the bison on his land just west of Bozeman for 5 years in exchange for keeping 75 percent of their offspring to offset the estimated $480,000 cost. The original 87 bison and 25 percent of the offspring would go back to the state to start new conservation herds.

Defenders of Wildlife supported this move as the best outcome for wild bison conservation over the long term. But some conservation groups didn’t like the idea and are currently suing FWP for trying to “privatize wildlife management.”

Meanwhile, Native American tribes at Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian Reservations in eastern Montana have been working hard for several years to make room for bison herds. Tribes at both reservations have been busy setting aside large parcels and putting up fencing to accommodate bison, which were once an integral part of life on the plains. The tribes have made repeated requests to house some or all of the remaining quarantined Yellowstone bison so they can start new genetically pure bison herds.

But the Montana wildlife agency has not yet responded to their requests, and the 63 bison still in quarantine remain homeless.

The agency claims they cannot move the remaining disease-free bison until the lawsuit over the Turner deal is resolved, even though the tribes’ proposal is independent of ongoing litigation. In addition, the tribes have already agreed to manage the bison as a tribal public resource, not for private profit.

Montana’s Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and Sioux tribes stand ready to help, but the question remains: will they be given a chance?

Mike Leahy is director of conservation programs in the Rocky Mountain region for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

bison lawsuit
Bill French
Bill French
Dec 24, 2010 05:43 PM
I'd be interested to know which "conservation groups" are suing FWP and what their rationale might be. In past years, FWP would have just destroyed these bison. Ted Turner's offer appears very generous and would provide genetically pure bison another place to increase their numbers.

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