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Yellowstone Seeks to Establish Brucellosis Quarantine Facility

Yellowstone National Park hopes to convert part of the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility into a certified brucellosis quarantine facility.

According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the plan has been in the works since April, with park officials speaking with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service and the Montana Department of Livestock about upgrades the facility would need to qualify.

The decision stems out of a dispute that occurred earlier this year, when capture operations were temporarily halted by order of Montana Governor Steve Bullock when a group of 40 bison previously promised to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation were slated for slaughter.

After some negotiating, officials agreed to spare 24 bull bison from slaughter. Part of the agreement involved hosting them in a USDA corral near Corwin Springs, Montana north of Yellowstone. The bulls would then be sent to the reservation.

Now, according to the Chronicle, Yellowstone officials are saying it would be less hassle to keep the bison on-site rather than ship them away:

Dan Wenk, the park’s superintendent, said the park believes sending bison to Corwin Springs would cost more than quarantining them at Stephens Creek, even with the facility upgrades it will require.

“I don’t think the cost is going to be that high,” Wenk said. “We feel like we’re in a better place in terms of doing the research we want to do on these animals,” Wenk said.

Wenk said work had not started on the facility yet because the park is waiting for the Department of Livestock and APHIS to provide specific requirements. Marty Zaluski, Montana’s state veterinarian, said he is working on finalizing the requirements, but he declined to give an exact date for when they’d be ready.

Quarantine is a process through which bison can be deemed free of the disease brucellosis, which can cause animals to abort. The livestock industry fears its spread. More than half of Yellowstone bison are believed to have been exposed to the disease, and though there has been no documented case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle in the wild, that fear has driven efforts to control the Yellowstone population and limit where bison are allowed.

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Wenk said turning part of the trap into a quarantine facility would not mean that the park would quarantine animals there every year. He said they’d like quarantine to be a part of bison management in the long term, but not within the park. As it stands now, a quarantine facility would likely have to fall within the designated surveillance area, a portion of southwestern Montana where livestock transport is more heavily regulated because of a known brucellosis risk.

“We are looking to the state and APHIS to tell us what we need to do at least on a temporary basis until we have something else in the (designated surveillance area),” Wenk said.

However, while Wenk argues it would be unnecessary to ship bison to a corral outside the park, Yellowstone’s other reason for seeking an alternative to the Corwin Springs plan is that the Corwin Springs plan “fizzled,” according to the Chronicle:

In mid-April, park officials circulated a memo lining out a framework for a quarantine at Stephens Creek managed by the park and APHIS. The memo included information on the amount of testing and types of samples that would need to be collected. The memo said park staff would be in charge of taking care of the animals and the facility, and APHIS would be responsible for OK’ing the facility for quarantine.

State and federal livestock officials visited the Stephens Creek facility on May 11 to talk with park officials about what improvements would be needed. Notes on that meeting compiled by park biologists listed a number of recommended fencing improvements, including double-fencing in some corrals and installing hard-walled fencing in others.

The document also said that whether the facility qualifies as a quarantine facility will be left up to the Department of Livestock and APHIS. The notes said officials from both livestock agencies have asked that the park submit a formal letter requesting certification of the facility as quarantine-ready.

Also at that meeting, according to the notes, Zaluski said there was no written certification for deeming bison brucellosis-free, and that such a certification comes through “a more informal procedure that occurs when the state animal health official sufficiently believes that an animal has successfully completed testing requirements outlined in the best-available-science.”

Park biologist PJ White asked that the process for certifying animals brucellosis-free be lined out in any agreement between the agencies that would allow quarantine at Stephens Creek.

On May 17, six days after the meeting at Stephens Creek, park biologist Rick Wallen sent an email to the livestock officials saying the park would “begin to install the hard wall throughout the area of our feeding/watering corral as we discussed and also install a second fence on the inside of the existing 8-foot-tall fence that is constructed with either 3- or 4-foot-tall fence topped with a single strand of barbed wire.”

Six days later, on May 23, Ryan Clarke, an epidemiologist with APHIS, responded to Wallen, urging him to wait on upgrading the facility until both APHIS and the Department of Livestock have provided a set of specific requirements for the facility.

According to Wenk, no work has begun on upgrading Stephens Creek, as the park is waiting on recommendations from the Department of Livestock and APHIS. State veterinarian Zaluski said his office is drafting requirements, which run from fencing requirements to quarantine testing to general protocol, according to the Chronicle:

Zaluski said male bison need to be quarantined for a year before they can be deemed free of the disease. The year begins only when the quarantine facility is constructed, and official tests begin. That means although the park has been testing the 24 bison, they are still more than a year away from being sent to Fort Peck.

During trapping operations this winter, the park set aside another 35 bison for research they hope will inform them on how long bison need to stay in quarantine to ensure there isn’t a risk of brucellosis transmission.

If implemented, a quarantine program at Stephens Creek would be a substantive change in bison management policy. Under the current Interagency Bison Management Plan, implemented in 2000, officials from state, federal and tribal entities must work to keep Yellowstone’s population at around 3,000 through hunting and slaughter. This quota has never been reached, but it has sparked considerable controversy with bison and conservation advocates saying the plan is cruel and unnecessary.

In recent years, the stigma of bison as brucellosis vectors has waned somewhat, with officials recognizing that elk, not bison, are far more likely to transmit the disease to cattle.

And while the stakeholders under the IBMP more or less agree changes are necessary, discussions have been stuck in a stalemate. Quarantining has been one of the larger issues. Indeed, earlier this year, a lawmaker in the Montana Legislature attempted to resolve the issue by introducing a bill to permit Yellowstone bison from being shipped in-state. The bill died in the Montana House.

Under current law, bison may only be transported out of Yellowstone if they’re being sent to a designated slaughter facility.

The article does not mention what future quarantined bison would face—whether they would be permitted to go to outside facilities such as those at Fort Peck, whether they would be sent to other herds across the country, or whether they would simply be let back into the park.

About Sean Reichard

Sean Reichard is the editor of Yellowstone Insider and author of Yellowstone Insider For Families 2017.

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