Oh, give me a home
SEAN SPERRY/CHRONICLE Bison congregate at the bison quarantine facility at Corwin Springs, North of Gardiner, on Tuesday.

A bison quarantine effort begun in 2005 to isolate brucellosis-free animals in hopes of starting wild bison herds elsewhere in the United States has yielded its first offspring, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Tuesday.

Now, the department is looking for groups or agencies willing to adopt what would be the first genetically pure Yellowstone bison herd placed outside Yellowstone National Park in decades.

Twenty-one cows, four bulls and 15 calves will be shipped elsewhere to begin a wild herd of bison.

"We're hopeful," said Melissa Frost, a spokeswoman for FWP. "We're hopeful to be able to preserve and restore Yellowstone bison outside the Yellowstone ecosystem."

Because of heavy hunting and crossbreeding with cattle, genetically pure wild bison are rare in the United States. Yellowstone's genetically pure herd has been prevented from roaming far past the park's border due to ranchers' fears that the animals could spread brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis causes grazing animals to abort their young.

Also, brucellosis poses a unique challenge to veterinarians trying to detect the bug, said Ryan Clarke, a United States Department of Agriculture veterinarian who worked on the quarantine project. Brucellosis can lie dormant, tricking vets into thinking an animal is not carrying it when in fact it is.

The goal of the quarantine program, according to Clarke, was three pronged. It sought to develop a better way to test bison for brucellosis, preserve their diverse genetics and develop a more humane way to deal with bison overpopulation in the Yellowstone area.

"It might be a way of taking animals that are excess in the system and placing them in other parts of the country and not having to kill them," Clarke said.

More than 1,600 bison were killed last winter as they roamed out of the park seeking lower feeding grounds.

The quarantine program, however, has its critics. The Buffalo Field Campaign, a bison advocacy group based in West Yellowstone, has called the experiment "nothing more than a taxpayer-funded bison ranch."

Efforts to create the brucellosis-free herd started in 2005 when about 100 bison calves were captured in the park and tested for brucellosis exposure at a facility in Corwin Springs, just north of Yellowstone.

About half of those calves were euthanized so scientists could test tissue for brucellosis, the only surefire way to determine whether a bison has the elusive bug, Clarke said.

None of the tissue samples turned up brucellosis, and the remaining calves tested negative to brucellosis exposure in blood tests. All of that made biologists confident the animals were isolated from brucellosis, Clarke said.

Still, they have been tested at least twice a year since capture. The last test was to see whether the bison could breed without brucellosis flaring up. The calves began dropping in May this year, Clarke said, with no signs of the disease appearing in mothers or calves.

"We are very excited about this study," Clarke said. "It's just really great science and we're excited."

The science is coming at a cost. In 2006, it was reported the project would cost $2.1 million over six years, the number of years it will take to run through the quarantine experiment twice.

Clarke said that is still the budgeted amount, though the project is operating slightly under budget.

FWP is seeking an agency or organization that is capable of caring for the animals for five years, it said in a written release. The bison cannot be used or sold as commercial livestock, it said.

A repeat of the experiment is under way. This winter, another 100 calves were captured and will go through the same series of tests.