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Twenty-eight Yellowstone bison were transferred to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation on Thursday as part of a program to divert more disease-free bison away from slaughter.

Thursday’s shipment of Yellowstone bison to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck was the sixth transfer of its kind since the Bison Conservation Transfer Program launched in 2019.

Chamois Andersen, senior Rockies and Plains representative at Defenders of Wildlife, said the transfer program has turned into a meaningful partnership operation between Yellowstone National Park, tribes, the state of Montana and others since it launched.

Bison aren’t tolerated much in Montana due to the threat that the disease brucellosis poses to the livestock industry. Animals spread it when they come into contact with the birth tissues and fluids of infected animals, and it can cause cattle to abort or produce weak young.

Up to 60% of bison in Yellowstone National Park have been exposed to brucellosis, but there have been no recorded brucellosis transmissions from bison to livestock in the wild.

Wild elk have transmitted the disease to livestock.

Bison reproduce and survive at relatively high rates, so managers cull a certain number of the animals every year to keep populations steady within the park. This winter, federal, state and tribal officials agreed to cull between 600 and 900 Yellowstone bison.

Some bison are shot by tribal and state hunters as they leave Yellowstone during a winter migration. Others are rounded up while they leave the park and get sent to slaughter. Captured animals that initially test negative for brucellosis can be enrolled in the transfer program.

Bison in the quarantine program at facilities in and near the park and get tested for brucellosis repeatedly. Animals that continue to test negative get shipped to the Fort Peck Reservation, where they must go through a final round of assurance testing.

Once they are cleared, the Yellowstone bison can then be shipped to tribal lands around the country to support cultural herds.

Over the last two years, 182 Yellowstone bison have made it to the Fort Peck Reservation through the transfer program. Of those animals, 82 have since been distributed to 18 tribal nations in 10 different states, the park wrote.

Bison transferred on Thursday were initially captured in March 2020 at Stephens Creek. Twenty males completed quarantine in the park and a small family group of eight bison— one male, four females and three calves— completed quarantine at Corwin Springs, according to park staff.

Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly said at a virtual event on Thursday that the park is investing a record amount of money into bison conservation.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Yellowstone Forever— the park’s nonprofit arm— both pitched in $250,000 to expand capacity in the park’s quarantine facilities last August, matching the park’s $500,000 contribution to the effort.

Sixty-seven bison are still enrolled in the transfer program, and Yellowstone National Park and USDA-APHIS are planning to enroll another 80 to 120 animals into the program this winter, park staff wrote.

Last December, 56 disease-free Yellowstone bison were sent to the Yakama Nation’s lands in Washington and the Modoc Nation’s lands in Oklahoma. It was the first time that two large, intact families of bison were transferred to tribal land through the program.

North America was once home to an estimated 30 million bison, but mass slaughter in the late 1800s brought populations down to about 1,000 by the turn of the 20th century. Most of the continent’s remaining bison were held in captivity on private land, but there was still a small herd left in Yellowstone National Park.

The approximately 5,400 Yellowstone bison that live today are the direct descendants of the last herd of wild bison in the West. Unlike other populations, they are free of cattle genes.

Andersen said bringing those genes into cultural herds will add to a meta-population of animals with high genetics, which will contribute to the overall restoration of the species.

“The (Bison Conservation Transfer Program) has made incredible strides in the cultural and ecological restoration of bison across the country,” she said in a news release. “We are grateful to be a part of this partnership between Yellowstone National Park and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck working to bring back bison to tribal lands.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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