By Sean Reichard
A herd of 41 bison are being moved from Yellowstone National Park to the Wind River reservation in Fremont County, Wyoming. This is part of an effort to spare the bison from a government program that slaughters bison in an effort to prevent brucellosis from spreading to other animals.
The bison are currently set to stay in a 1000-acre enclosure on the reservation for a year and then be moved to a 30,000 acre fenced area where they will be allowed to roam freely. The bison were previously quarantined in Paradise Valley, where it was determined that they posed no brucellosis-related threat to livestock in the West.
Efforts to quarantine bison and spare them from being slaughtered have been in effect since 2005, when 100 bison calves were captured and tested at least twice a year for brucellosis. All the brucellosis-free bison were kept quarantined, where they mated and produced offspring in spring 2008.
Both the quarantine effort and the government slaughter program, which killed 1,600 bison in 2008, are all means by which people are fighting brucellosis, a dangerous livestock disease that can cause pregnant livestock to abort their young. The disease is troublesome for ranchers and landowners, as the disease can weaken and take down a whole herd.
The quarantine process, however, is running into a couple problems. Last week, a bill sponsored by Sen. John Brenden (R-Scobey) passed through Montana’s state Senate, preventing quarantined bison from being moved to Native American reservations in Montana, such as the Fort Peck reservation in northern Montana. The bill is meant to protect ranchers and landowners worried about the disease. Senator Brendan told the House Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee Thursday that, “There’s still a lot we don’t know about brucellosis.” Supporters of the bill include representatives from the Montana Stockgrowers Association, the Montana Cattlewoman’s Association, and the Montana Farm Bureau Association; all three were skeptical of the bison’s “brucellosis free” status and fearful of what would happen if the bison escaped their quarantine and mingled with cattle.
Officials from Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee and the Department of Livestock, however, are countering this measure by pointing out that the same rigorous brucellosis testing done by the cattle industry is used on the bison in quarantine. Marty Zaluski, a veterinarian for Livestock Department, says that the quarantine project uses, “science based on the code of federal regulations and state law… and it’s the same science that in fact cattle producers in Montana use to argue that our cattle are safe.” Chris Smith, deputy director of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee added that the quarantined bison would only be sent to places most fit to manage them.
Some opponents of the bill argue that the bill is discriminatory against Indian reservations, the underlying message being that the tribes are ill equipped to successfully manage the bison. Representatives from the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations argue that the bill is anti-tribe and that ranchers are really afraid that the reservations cannot prevent the bison from escaping quarantine. Robert Magnun, director of Fort Peck’s Fish and Game Department says that some bulls “push right through the fence. But when they get out, we push them right back in.”
The bill is also coming under fire from Indian reservations and tribes such as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, the governor’s office, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation
It should be noted that there have been no documented cases of brucellosis being transferred from bison to cattle.