Lost lease bad news for bison
Deirdre Eitle/Chronicle A group of bison, including a calf on the left, run along U.S. Highway 89 near Corwin Springs last week while being pushed by state Department of Livestock wranglers. An expired lease at the nearby brucellosis quarantine facility means more captured calves will be sent to slaughter this winter.

LIVINGSTON n The lease on a brucellosis quarantine facility at Corwin Springs has expired and that means more bison calves will be shipped to slaughterhouses this winter, federal officials said Thursday.

However, officials said, they hope lease negotiations will bear fruit and that the facility can again begin accepting calves.

"We're optimistic that we can reach an accord" with the landowner, said Ryan Clarke, regional epidemiologist for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, the federal agency that works on livestock diseases. Clarke said he did not know if a deal could be forged this winter.

So for now, all bison captured in nearby Yellowstone National Park - even calves with no signs of disease - will be shipped to slaughter, according to the park's public affairs office.

The property at stake is a privately owned former elk ranch, which provides the land for the first phase of the quarantine experiment. Over the past two winters, calves with no signs of exposure to brucellosis have been held there and tested repeatedly for antibodies to the disease. After they reached breeding age, they were taken to a separate leased property a few miles north for the second phase of the program.

The test animals came from the Park Service's trap near Gardiner. Since last week, 17 calves tested negative for brucellosis exposure and had been held until inspectors said they could not accept them now. Most were shipped to slaughter Thursday.

Adult animals aren't tested for the disease this early in the winter. They're shipped quickly to slaughter because Yellowstone officials say they have no place to keep them until spring and if they were released now, they likely would leave the park, which Montana does not allow because of disease fears.

The quarantine facility was established in 2005 with the goal of learning whether crops of disease-free bison calves could be produced for release in other areas.

Roughly 100 calves were placed there in 2005 and 2006 and tested repeatedly for exposure to the disease. A handful that later tested positive were slaughtered. Later still, half of the negative animals were slaughtered and 21 tissue samples were taken from each carcass to conduct more accurate "culture" tests, in part to test the accuracy of the "sero" tests given to live animals.

The research showed two tests that seem to be the most accurate for determining exposure to the disease, Clarke said. While about 15 percent of Yellowstone bison traditionally test sero-positive for exposure to the disease, a smaller percentage are actually infected.

Brucellosis can be tricky to diagnose. It sometimes lies dormant and undetectable in an animal's body until stress, which can be elicited by puberty or pregnancy, causes full blown infection. Of the 45 surviving bison, about 37 are expected to give birth in the spring.

"We're hopeful that all of them will be sero-negative," Clarke said. "And the calves, too. If that happens, then the study is a success."

Yellowstone bison have diverse genetics and, unlike almost all bison herds in the nation, have never crossbred with cattle. That makes them attractive to bison managers around the continent.

State, federal, private and Canadian biologists are working on what they call a "north American Bison Conservation Strategy" that aims to restore wild bison to appropriate places. Disease-free Yellowstone bison could play a role in those efforts, researchers say.

Clarke said that if the quarantine proves to be a success, animals born this spring likely would be released in federal parks or refuges or on Indian reservations. However, unless a new lease can be signed, no more animals can be brought into the program even if it proves successful.

APHIS spokeswoman Theresa Howes said she could not reveal details about the negotiations, citing federal privacy rules. Negotiations have been ongoing since November, she said.

She did say that APHIS expenses totaled roughly $486,000 in fiscal years 2005 and 2006. That figure includes a number of expenses not related to the quarantine experiment. The quarantine project was projected to cost $2.2 million over five years.

The expired lease was signed by the former property owner, Welch Brogan, who has since died. The current owner of the 400-acre property, Hunter Brink, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bison advocates in the past have criticized the quarantine program, saying the money would be better spent on other programs.

Mike Mease, co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign, said Thursday that he had mixed emotions about the program, which doesn't kill all the bison it includes, but it takes them out of the park ecosystem.

"It gets into the lesser of two evils," he said.

When bison are shipped to slaughter, the meat, heads and hides are donated to Indian organizations or charities. The meat is safe to eat if properly cooked. Brucellosis generally resides in the reproductive tract or other organs and not in muscle tissue.