Bison Trap 1

Observers look down into the pens holding bison at the Yellowstone National Park Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility near Gardiner.

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Yellowstone National Park has taken steps toward turning part of its bison trap at the northern edge of the park into a certified brucellosis quarantine facility, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle.

Since at least April, park officials have been talking with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Montana Department of Livestock about upgrades it could make to the Stephens Creek Facility and testing requirements needed to certify bison as brucellosis-free there. The move is meant to eventually get the 24 male bison sitting in the trap to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation without first transferring them to APHIS-managed quarantine corrals at Corwin Springs.

Dan Wenk, the park’s superintendent, said the park believes sending bison to Corwin Springs would cost more than quarantining them at Stephens Creek, even with the facility upgrades it will require.

“I don’t think the cost is going to be that high,” Wenk said. “We feel like we’re in a better place in terms of doing the research we want to do on these animals,” Wenk said.

Wenk said work had not started on the facility yet because the park is waiting for the Department of Livestock and APHIS to provide specific requirements. Marty Zaluski, Montana’s state veterinarian, said he is working on finalizing the requirements, but he declined to give an exact date for when they’d be ready.

Quarantine is a process through which bison can be deemed free of the disease brucellosis, which can cause animals to abort. The livestock industry fears its spread. More than half of Yellowstone bison are believed to have been exposed to the disease, and though there has been no documented case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle in the wild, that fear has driven efforts to control the Yellowstone population and limit where bison are allowed.

A 17-year-old management plan calls for a population of about 3,000 bison in Yellowstone, and prior to this year’s cull of more than 1,200, biologists estimated the population at 5,500. The population is managed through hunting and shipping bison to slaughter. Quarantining bison is seen both as a way to reduce the number slaughtered each year and to establish more bison herds around the country.

Wenk said turning part of the trap into a quarantine facility would not mean that the park would quarantine animals there every year. He said they’d like quarantine to be a part of bison management in the long term, but not within the park. As it stands now, a quarantine facility would likely have to fall within the designated surveillance area, a portion of southwestern Montana where livestock transport is more heavily regulated because of a known brucellosis risk.

“We are looking to the state and APHIS to tell us what we need to do at least on a temporary basis until we have something else in the (designated surveillance area),” Wenk said.

In 2016, Yellowstone proposed establishing a quarantine operation at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The tribes wanted to use the operation to provide live bison to other Native American tribes around the country. But the proposal never received final approval because of a state law that requires wild bison be certified brucellosis-free by the state veterinarian before being transferred to a tribal entity.

In early 2017, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock blocked the slaughter of bison the park had set aside to start the Fort Peck quarantine. After a few weeks of uncertainty, it seemed the bison would be quarantined at APHIS corrals near Corwin Springs, a few miles north of the park.

According to the documents obtained by the Chronicle, the deal fizzled in April. On April 3, Don Herriott, the District 5 director for APHIS’ veterinary services wing, sent Wenk an email with a Memorandum of Understanding for quarantining bison. The Chronicle has requested the contents of the email, but the request has not been fulfilled. The parties also met privately during the lunch break of a bison meeting a few days later.

In mid-April, park officials circulated a memo lining out a framework for a quarantine at Stephens Creek managed by the park and APHIS. The memo included information on the amount of testing and types of samples that would need to be collected. The memo said park staff would be in charge of taking care of the animals and the facility, and APHIS would be responsible for OK’ing the facility for quarantine.

State and federal livestock officials visited the Stephens Creek facility on May 11 to talk with park officials about what improvements would be needed. Notes on that meeting compiled by park biologists listed a number of recommended fencing improvements, including double-fencing in some corrals and installing hard-walled fencing in others.

The document also said that whether the facility qualifies as a quarantine facility will be left up to the Department of Livestock and APHIS. The notes said officials from both livestock agencies have asked that the park submit a formal letter requesting certification of the facility as quarantine-ready.

Also at that meeting, according to the notes, Zaluski said there was no written certification for deeming bison brucellosis-free, and that such a certification comes through “a more informal procedure that occurs when the state animal health official sufficiently believes that an animal has successfully completed testing requirements outlined in the best-available-science.”

Park biologist PJ White asked that the process for certifying animals brucellosis-free be lined out in any agreement between the agencies that would allow quarantine at Stephens Creek.

On May 17, six days after the meeting at Stephens Creek, park biologist Rick Wallen sent an email to the livestock officials saying the park would “begin to install the hard wall throughout the area of our feeding/watering corral as we discussed and also install a second fence on the inside of the existing 8-foot-tall fence that is constructed with either 3- or 4-foot-tall fence topped with a single strand of barbed wire.”

Six days later, on May 23, Ryan Clarke, an epidemiologist with APHIS, responded to Wallen, urging him to wait on upgrading the facility until both APHIS and the Department of Livestock have provided a set of specific requirements for the facility.

Wenk said no work has been done on upgrading the facility yet because they have not received specific requirements yet.

Zaluski said his office is working on finalizing those recommendations. He said the document will include fencing requirements, measures to prevent potential outside contamination and protocols for what qualifies as an official quarantine test.

Zaluski said male bison need to be quarantined for a year before they can be deemed free of the disease. The year begins only when the quarantine facility is constructed, and official tests begin. That means although the park has been testing the 24 bison, they are still more than a year away from being sent to Fort Peck.

During trapping operations this winter, the park set aside another 35 bison for research they hope will inform them on how long bison need to stay in quarantine to ensure there isn’t a risk of brucellosis transmission.

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

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

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