Yellowstone National Park will undertake plans to convert part of the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility into a certified brucellosis quarantine area.
The move comes as no surprise, as the park announced this June they had been consulting state and federal officials about the possibility. Last month, we reported Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski had submitted guidelines for park officials to undertake in order to meet quarantine protocols.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk informed the agencies and tribes operating under the Interagency Bison Management Plan this week of the impending change, which could come by the end of the year:
Wenk and park biologist PJ White said they are still working out some of the details with the Montana Department of Livestock and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, but they expect the work to be done sometime this fall.
Still, the focus of the project will be short-term. They want to get a group of bison they’ve been holding since 2016 to a tribal reservation, and Wenk said they want to find a place outside of the park where bison could be quarantined in the long-term.
“It’s not our long-term objective to continue to operate a quarantine facility in the park,” Wenk said.
Quarantining bison is a way to deem them free of brucellosis, a designation that allows them to be moved to other places more freely. Brucellosis is a disease that can cause animals to abort, and the livestock industry fears that it might spread to cattle. No case of bison spreading the disease has been documented in the wild, though it has happened with elk.
The fear of the disease has led to years of population-control efforts through hunting and slaughter. Some see quarantine as a way to reduce the number of bison slaughtered each year and as a way to establish new herds around the country.
In 2016, Yellowstone proposed establishing a quarantine program at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The tribal government spent roughly $500,000 building a facility there, and Yellowstone set aside some bison to start the program in 2016.
But a legal conflict has prevented the park from sending the bison to Fort Peck. Earlier this year, it seemed the 24 bison might be sent to federally managed corrals near Corwin Springs. But the park balked at the cost of housing bison there and has instead decided to sequester the bison themselves.
Not everyone is pleased with the announcement. Joe Gutkoski, president of the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, called quarantine “a kow-tow to Montana’s stockgrowers and the governor’s future ambitions.”
This line of thought is echoed by organizations like the Buffalo Field Campaign, who want to see free ranging bison and view quarantine (and, indeed, any effort to control the Yellowstone bison population) as an assault on the herd’s inherent wildness.
The move is also drawing criticism from the Fort Peck Tribes who, as mentioned, sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into a quarantine facility. Further, when the park announced it was only sparing 24 bison for the tribe (all bulls), Chairman Floyd Azure called the move “a slap in the face” to the Tribes.
Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes, told the Chronicle that the tribes still feel disappointed by this move, but “remain hopeful” that they will get bison down the line.
Earlier this year, we reported a Montana legislator had introduced a bill that would rescind the ban on transporting bison if they test positive for brucellosis—really the only major roadblock facing the park’s population. That bill was later tabled, however, after the Montana Board of Livestock voiced their concerns. Shana Drimal of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition told the Chronicle there’s “really no good reason why bison shouldn’t be shipped up there.”
The Board of Livestock has spoken out against the Fort Peck quarantine proposal in the past, and previously counted Zaluski on its side. It’s apparent now, however, that Zaluski has softened somewhat toward quarantining.
Indeed, the line of thought that holds bison must be contained and isolated in Yellowstone National Park—lest they stampede across the landscape, bringing disease and disorder—has worn thin in recent years, especially with new revelations that elk, not bison, are much more likely to transmit brucellosis to cattle. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which authored a seminal brucellosis report in 1998, announced in late May that a new study confirmed the need to prioritize elk management over bison management.