The fate of some 300 wild bison being held at the Stephens Creek facility just inside Yellowstone National Park's northern border will soon be decided.
Park officials are scheduled to start testing the animals today for exposure to brucellosis, a disease that causes wildlife and livestock to abort their young. Those bison that test positive will be sent to slaughter, likely within days.
The division of the herd will mean drastically different futures for those bison that remain in the pasture near Gardiner, and for those that go.
The 300 bison were herded into the pasture Monday after many of them repeatedly migrated onto private and public lands north of the park. Because of concerns that brucellosis-carrying bison could spread the disease to Montana livestock outside Yellowstone, government officials herd the animals back into the park if they wander outside it.
But this past weekend, after repeated attempts to haze the bison back into the park, state and federal agencies decided instead to haze hundreds of them into the fenced pasture at Stephens Creek, where they are now corralled.
Within days, bison that test positive for exposure to brucellosis will likely be shipped to different processing plants in Montana.
They will be the first bison shipped to slaughter since 2008, said park spokesman Al Nash.
Bison typically wander outside the park in the winter because they are searching for lower-elevation, less snowy grounds where they can find food and grass. But Nash said more bison than usual are coming out of the park this year, largely due to Yellowstone's heavy snowpack.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman based conservation group, has already condemned the "roundup and likely slaughter" of the bison. In a statement released Tuesday, it called on Gov. Brian Schweitzer and government agencies to "offer leniency for the iconic symbol of the West."
Critics of the slaughter also point out that a bison-to-cattle transmission of the disease has never been recorded.
For the animals shipped to slaughter, the first step is inspection by state officials, said Steve Merritt, Montana Department of Livestock spokesman. Then, the bison will be shuffled through a chute into a kill box, which keeps them from moving around, and killed with a stun gun, captive bolts or a rifle.
Merritt said as much of the animal is used as possible.
"I'd have to say we do a pretty darn good job," he said.
The hide, horns and skulls can sometimes be shipped to tribal groups if requested. The meat is distributed to tribal groups or food banks, both of which must apply for the meat.
Bison meat has gone to tribes as far away as Florida and Michigan and to food banks as close as the one in Bozeman.
Tim Trzinski, program director for Gallatin Valley and Headwaters food banks, said that in previous years both have received bison meat from the park. The food banks have a standing application for bison meat.
"Food banks are serving so many people now, any food source is very much appreciated," he said. "Oftentimes protein is one of our challenges."
He said the food bank serves nearly 3,000 people a month. Being able to serve the quality, low-fat protein source is "very empowering."
UNFIT TO EAT
Sometimes bison meat can be unsuitable for human consumption. Yellowstone biologist Rick Wallen said people are not allowed to eat bison that have been vaccinated for brucellosis within the previous three weeks. That's because there's a small chance humans could contract the disease from eating the meat.
He said that's highly unlikely, however, because people generally cook meat and they eat muscle tissue, a part of the body where the bacteria typically doesn't lodge.
Wallen added that as an elk hunter, he's likely harvested and eaten many brucellosis-infected elk, as they also carry the disease. However, it's rare that elk hunters contract the disease. If they do, he said it's probably because they handle the internal organs more than they should.
If humans contract the disease, Wallen said symptoms include a high fever that eases and worsens as a person rests and works. If can also lead to chronic arthritis, he said.
Wallen said veterinarians, wildlife technicians, biologists, and butchers are among those more susceptible to contracting the disease because they handle the animals' internal organs and reproductive tissues.
However, while recently vaccinated bison are off limits, those that tested positive for exposure to the disease will be sent to the processing plants.
Merritt said meat packaged in the plants is labeled as bison, but the label will not indicate that a bison may or may not have had brucellosis.
BACK IN PASTURE
As some bison are worked through the processing plants in the coming weeks, those of their group that tested negative for brucellosis will likely remain in the roughly 10-acre Stephens Creek pasture.
The ground in the pasture is frozen and snowy, so bison are being fed hay, Wallen said. Drinking water is being piped in.
The animals that test negative will probably remain in that pasture until spring, when they will be hazed back into Yellowstone, park officials said.
The pasture can only hold a certain number of bison, however, and a problem could arise if many more need to be herded into the facility.
"We take that very seriously," Wallen said of possibly crowding the animals. "It's not an easy one size fits all."
He said large adult males need more space, while females with young tend to sit close to each other. He added that being penned and fed -- a change from their typical wild lifestyles - will not cause problems for the animals when they are released again.
Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or email@example.com.