Thirty-three Yellowstone bison that had been held in quarantine — including 14 females with calves — were shipped from their pasture near Gardiner to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on Monday.
It was an early Christmas present for the tribes.
“I’m really happy,” said Robert Magnan, the tribes’ bison manager. “We’re not only taking females and babies, some of the females are pregnant. It’s a double batch.”
The female bison are the first Yellowstone descendants to leave since a 2014 release of 138 bison that had been quarantined on one of Ted Turner’s Montana ranches for nearly a decade. They are also the first female bison to be released under a new agreement between tribes, state and federal agencies.
Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group that paid for the bison to be hauled, hailed the transfer as a sign of increased cooperation between the organizations, as well as an example of how a nonprofit can help out.
“This pipeline is starting to happen,” said Chamois Andersen, Defenders’ senior representative for bison.
Although only a trickle now, the group is hoping that the movement of animals will prove to officials that the Fort Peck Tribes can be more engaged in the quarantine and testing of bison, Andersen said. Reaching such a goal would chip away at the number of Yellowstone bison sent to slaughter.
In 2019 more than 300 Yellowstone bison were shipped to slaughter after being captured by park workers. The bison are trucked to slaughter facilities in Montana where the bison are killed and butchered. The meat is then shared among cooperating tribes. Yellowstone officials would like to reduce the number of bison killed in this manner but are constrained by the number of animals the park can hold in quarantine.
The park is collaborating with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, a federal agency, “to optimize available space for quarantined bison,” according to Yellowstone spokeswoman Morgan Warthin. APHIS has been using a Corwin Springs pasture to hold bison for brucellosis testing, including Monday’s cohort. Warthin wouldn’t say whether that pasture would now be available to the park to hold bison in quarantine. Fifty-eight bison remain at the facility, according to an APHIS spokesperson.
Female bison face stricter regulations for release because, if infected with the disease brucellosis, their birthing materials are considered the main means of spreading infection. Consequently, immature female bison must test negative for exposure to brucellosis for two-and-a-half years before they can be shipped to join other herds.
“We know females are the most scrutinized,” Andersen said. “And we couldn’t do it without APHIS. They are the most concerned about state management and what this program will look like.”
Upon arrival at the reservation, the 33 animals trucked on Monday will be quarantined from the tribal commercial herd on the Fort Peck Reservation for another year while being tested again for brucellosis.
The 5- to 8-year-old bison shipped on Monday, which included five bulls, includes the 14 calves that were born in the Corwin Springs pasture used by APHIS. The adults have been quarantined since December 2017 or June 2018. Although the Fort Peck Tribes built its facility to meet quarantine requirements, the state of Montana has denied requests to use the corral for anything other than the last assurance test.
Nevertheless, the tribes have steadily built a cultural herd that now numbers 400 head as well as a separate commercial herd.
“We’re at our carrying capacity right now,” Magnan said of the cultural herd.
In July, after the calving season, the tribes plan to ship a portion of its herd to the InterTribal Buffalo Council for disbursement. This past June the tribes shipped five bison to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming as it builds its buffalo herd.
Yellowstone bison are highly prized by tribes as well as bison ranchers and managers of other conservation herds for their pure genetics, meaning they have never been interbred with cattle.