Yellowstone Bison

Bison congregate at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.

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WEST YELLOWSTONE— Yellowstone National Park officials hope to send a group of brucellosis-free bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation by the end of this year, a move that would come more than two years after the park first proposed quarantining animals there.

Dan Wenk, Yellowstone's superintendent, said at a meeting here Wednesday that federal agriculture officials had given verbal approval to the park's quarantine corrals and that he expects a regional director of the National Park Service to sign off on the plans in early May. 

The park is holding 98 bison in quarantine corrals at its Stephens Creek Capture Facility outside Gardiner, just inside the northern boundary of the park, and Wenk hopes at least some of those could be sent to Fort Peck this year after completing a brucellosis testing program. 

"We believe this is one of the tools that we can use that will repatriate bison on a greater landscape across the West," Wenk said. 

Wenk announced the progress at a meeting of the various government agencies involved in the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The plan, which was written in 2000, is meant to prevent the spread of brucellosis, which can cause animals to abort and is feared by the livestock industry. About half of Yellowstone's bison are believed to have been exposed to the disease, but there have been no documented cases of bison transmitting the disease to cattle.

Bison managers try to reduce the population primarily through hunting and ship to slaughter. More than 1,100 were culled this year, exceeding managers' goal of between 600 and 900. Park biologists believe that will lead to a post-calving population of about 4,200. 

Quarantine is seen by some as a way to reduce the number of bison killed each year. Opponents argue that it domesticates a wild animal, but Yellowstone and tribal officials have been trying to establish a program for two years. 

In 2016, the park proposed quarantining bison at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The tribe spent more than $500,000 building a facility and park managers set aside a group of animals for the program. But the Park Service declined to make a final decision on that plan after a legal conflict over transporting bison that hadn't previously been quarantined. 

During the spring of 2017, Yellowstone decided to turn part of its trap into a quarantine facility. According to documents obtained by the Chronicle, the park spent at least $120,000 on upgrading its corrals to meet federal requirements. Federal agriculture officials inspected the facility in December but didn't give final approval until this spring.

Wenk said the various agencies involved are now working on a pair of agreements that will line out how the program would work, including the length of time a bison would have to remain in isolation for it to be certified as disease free. In the long-term, he said, he hopes they could eventually use other quarantine facilities as well, including the one at Fort Peck.

The Fort Peck Tribes want to quarantine bison at their reservation but the facility they built hasn't been approved by federal officials because of a policy that requires such facilities to be near Yellowstone. As a result, the bison still have to be deemed disease free at the park's corrals before being trucked to the reservation.

Majel Russell, legal counsel for the tribes, said that policy should change. But, in the meantime, they'll accept the bison that graduate the park's quarantine program. 

"Our end goal is to preserve the Yellowstone bison," Russell said. "We're willing to work with their two-part solution."

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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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