Yellowstone Bison

Bison huddle together during winter in Yellowstone. Five of the animals will be tested for brucellosis at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation under an agreement between federal and tribal officials.

Tribal and federal agriculture officials have reached an agreement that could allow five Yellowstone bison to be transported to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes, said the tribes and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service reached a deal that would allow five bull bison held at APHIS corrals near the Corwin Springs facility to go to Fort Peck for the final phase of brucellosis quarantine, a process of isolation and testing to certify animals as free of the disease. The five bulls have repeatedly tested negative for the disease and would undergo a final round of testing at the reservation.

“We’re just waiting to finalize details on getting those animals moved,” Russell said.

The Fort Peck Tribal Council formally approved the agreement just before Christmas and Russell said a top APHIS official had agreed to it, but it’s not completely final.

A signature is required from Marty Zaluski, the Montana state veterinarian, who said he “didn’t have a problem” with the last version he saw but has not received an official copy to sign. The partial federal government shutdown also poses an obstacle to sending the five bulls north, but tribal officials are encouraged by the deal.

The accord avoids for now a conflict between the tribes and APHIS over what portion of the quarantine process the tribes can carry out — a disagreement that tanked an earlier proposal to move the five bison to Fort Peck. It also applies only to the five bulls and doesn’t guarantee any future transfers.

It marks significant progress in the push for such a program, first proposed by Yellowstone National Park in 2016. A transfer to the reservation would give tribal officials a chance to use their $500,000 quarantine facility, though not as fully as they’d like.

“It’s a start,” said Robbie Magnan, manager of the Fort Peck bison program. “It’s the beginning of something that I hope will expand ... We’ve got the capability, we just need the chance to do it.”

APHIS could not be reached for comment because of the government shutdown.

Brucellosis, which can cause animals to abort, was once a major public health concern. It’s been mostly eradicated, but bison and elk in the Yellowstone region are known to carry it. Its spread is feared by the livestock industry because it could threaten Montana’s brucellosis-free status, and that fear limits where bison are allowed in Montana. Certifying bison as brucellosis-free makes it easier to move them to new places.

Officials and some conservationists view quarantine as a tool to reduce the number of Yellowstone bison slaughtered each year. Many also hope graduates of the program could be used to enhance other bison herds or establish new ones. Some bison advocates view it as the unnecessary domestication of a wild animal.

After Yellowstone officials first proposed quarantine in 2016, political and legal conflicts prevented the establishment of the program. Instead, Yellowstone converted part of its bison trap near Gardiner into a quarantine facility and began holding bison there.

The National Park Service issued final approval for the program in May 2018 but didn’t mandate that the process happen at Fort Peck. The decision lined out a three-part testing process, calling for the first two parts to take place near Yellowstone. Bison that continually test negative would advance to a third portion known as “assurance testing” — vaccination, isolation and another round of testing after about six months — which could happen at Fort Peck.

Tribal officials want to be involved at the earlier stages, but APHIS hasn’t budged. They rejected an earlier proposal from APHIS that tribal officials said would have moved the five bison but blocked the tribe from eventually taking on more of the quarantine process at their facility.

In response, Russell said, the tribes proposed the recent agreement — a more limited deal that would apply to the five bulls but wouldn’t “foreclose the opportunity for additional quarantine activities later.” She said Jack Shere, head of APHIS Veterinary Services, supported it.

Russell said they would continue talks about handling the earlier quarantine stages at Fort Peck.

As of late November, about 140 bison were enrolled in quarantine at either the Yellowstone or Corwin Springs corrals.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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