Yellowstone Bison Slaughter

This March 9, 2016 file photo a group of Yellowstone National Park bison await shipment to slaughter inside a holding pen along the park’s northern border near Gardiner, Mont.

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Tribal groups and wildlife advocates faced off with agriculture groups Thursday as the fight over transporting bison to a Native American reservation moved to the Montana Legislature.

Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, presented House Bill 419 to the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday. The bill would strike a requirement that wild bison transported through Montana be deemed free of the disease brucellosis — which can cause animals to miscarry — before they can be transported anywhere.

Willis Curdy (D)

Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula

That portion of law has been the center of a political struggle between state livestock officials and Yellowstone National Park over moving bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for a quarantine operation, through which the animals could be certified disease-free. Curdy said his bill was aimed at resolving that conflict and allowing quarantine to happen at Fort Peck.

“House Bill 419 is designed to address one technical point in Montana law,” Curdy said.

The bill garnered support from wildlife advocates and tribal officials, who said the law hasn’t been applied consistently and was a discriminatory roadblock to sending bison to Native American tribes. Dennis Jorgensen, with the World Wildlife Fund, said that the law would fix a redundancy and that the law as it is now is akin to requiring a sick person be deemed healthy before they can see a doctor.

“In order to be sent to tribes to be quarantined, Yellowstone bison must first be quarantined,” Jorgensen said. “It’s clearly redundant.”

But agriculture groups lined up in opposition, citing worries about brucellosis transmission and the potential for the cattle industry to suffer if wild bison are sent to new areas in the state.

“The law that we have in place and the way that the Department of Livestock is currently managing the species is working,” said Nicole Rolf of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, adding that the changes the bill proposes “would potentially put our industry in jeopardy.”

About 5,500 bison live in Yellowstone now, and a 17-year-old management plan fueled by fears of brucellosis calls for a population of about 3,000. Wildlife mangers want to kill about 1,300 bison this year to reduce the herd’s number, which they do through hunting and slaughter.

In 2016, Yellowstone National Park proposed establishing a quarantine program at Fort Peck, both as a way to augment other bison herds and to reduce the number shipped to slaughter each year. But state livestock officials blocked the move citing the portion of state law that requires wild bison be certified brucellosis-free before they can be transported and released somewhere else.

The Fort Peck Tribes have built a quarantine facility that meets federal standards. It can hold up to 500 animals, and they want to use it to augment other bison herds around the country. But representatives of the tribe said Thursday that they need this bill to become law for that to begin.

“This change in the law would allow use of that facility and it would allow the tribes to be a meaningful partner in this whole dilemma,” said Majel Russell, an attorney with the Fort Peck Tribes.

Lawmakers didn’t vote on the bill Thursday.

Yellowstone set aside some captured bison last year to establish the Fort Peck quarantine program. When it became clear the program wouldn’t start soon, the park decided to ship those animals to slaughter. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock blocked the shipment of those animals in January, sparking weeks of negotiations in search of a way to preserve those bison for eventual transfer to Fort Peck.

A deal was struck to send 24 of the animals — all male, making them a lower risk for brucellosis transmission — to U.S. Department of Agriculture corrals near Corwin Springs. They will likely be there until they are deemed brucellosis-free, which could take up to a year from the time they arrive.

A Yellowstone spokeswoman said the bison haven’t been moved from the park’s capture facility yet, and she couldn’t say when they would be moved.

Another 15 female bison originally part of the Fort Peck group weren’t allowed to go to the Corwin Springs corrals because of disease risk and a lack of space. Last week, they became the first animals shipped to slaughter this year.

Yellowstone has captured about 400 bison for slaughter and will capture more. On Thursday a spokeswoman declined to say how many had been shipped to slaughter so far, but operations will continue through March. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks told the Chronicle last week that hunters had likely taken close to 400 animals.

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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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