Over 50 Yellowstone bison escaped through a cut fence at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility in northern Yellowstone National Park.
The bison were reportedly slated for shipment to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in eastern Montana, which has built a facility to quarantine bison and clear them of brucellosis.
Yellowstone bison are annually hunted and shipped to slaughter in order to curb their numbers. Historically, bison have also been hazed back into the park, although in recent years they have been allowed to roam in parts of southern and southwestern Montana.
According to the Billings Gazette, the animals had been in the facility for nearly two years. The National Park Service told the Gazette that two pens had been breached.
It is not known whether the bison who escaped comprised all the bison being held at Stephens Creek. From the Gazette:
“The National Park Service has initiated a criminal investigation at Yellowstone National Park to investigate a trespass and tampering incident at the Stephens Creek facility,” Morgan Warthin, Yellowstone’s public affairs specialist, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Bison being held at the facility for possible quarantine are no longer in the pens.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the release devastating, possibly delaying the delivery of bison to the Fort Peck Tribes for another two years. The Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service must decide whether the quarantine period will have to be restarted, or whether the bison bulls that wandered away can still be considered a minimal risk for brucellosis.
“At the least we suspect it’s going to delay it; whether it restarts the clock to zero or not we have to wait and see,” Zinke said. “We were within days of actually moving the buffalo to another facility to begin the process of repatriation.”
The Fort Peck Tribal chairman was notified Tuesday night. Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk told Zinke that it appeared someone cut through the containment area with bolt cutters. The 54 bulls began traveling toward Gardiner. Not all of the bison had been accounted for Tuesday night.
The park had previously promised 40 Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Tribe, but all were nearly slaughtered in order to make more room for bison in the pens. Montana Governor Steve Bullock issued a temporary halt in operations. After some negotiating, 24 of the original 40 were spared and slated for shipment north to Corwin Springs, where they would be quarantined prior to being shipped to Fort Peck.
Following this incident, the park decided to broach the possibility of converting part of Stephens Creek into a quarantine facility.
Yellowstone only recently converted part of the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility into a possible quarantine area. Historically, the facility has been used to corral bison and permit managers to test them for brucellosis. Usually, bison were then sent off to designated slaughter facilities, where their meat and hides would be distributed among Native American tribes.
Indeed, the Stephens Creek area was closed to the public today in anticipation of bison operations.