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Fort Belknap Bison Likely Died From Excess Salt, State Veterinarian Says

Bison at Fort Belknap
Mark Azure
Bison at Fort Belknap

Tribal and state officials Wednesday said no contagious disease killed 19 bison on the Fort Belknap Reservation in July. The animals were part of a herd of 56 "genetically pure" bison transferred to the reservation from Yellowstone National Park earlier this year.

State veterinarian Bill Layton says they probably died from an excess of salt, either because they didn’t get enough water, or because the well water they were given was too salty.

"Our department, I think and the Tribe were very concerned about having an infectious disease. Because one: the Yellowstone bison, but also about the public health issues. We ruled that out immediately within the first week to week and a half."

Fort Belknap Tribal Council President Mark Azure rejects the claim that the bison might not have gotten enough water, but he says the important point is that no disease was involved.

"I don't know if we'll ever really know what took the lives of these animals. Salt toxicosis, could be. I don't know but again I respect the lab and what they've done."

Both men testified before the Montana Legislature’s Environmental Quality Council. Cattle ranchers near the Fort Belknap Reservation are concerned because bison can carry the disease brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cows to spontaneously abort.

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