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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Alternative To Yellowstone Bison Slaughter Continues To Languish

Bison at the Stephens Creek Capture facility north of Yellowstone Park in 2015.
Jim Peaco - NPS (PD)
Bison at the Stephens Creek Capture facility north of Yellowstone Park in 2015.

On Monday the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's Michael Wright reported that more than 570 Yellowstone National Park bison have been killed so far this winter. The Park is trying to reduce the size of its bison herd from an estimated 5,500 animals to about 3,000.

The annual slaughter happens as part of compromise between the Park Service and State of Montana, which says bison numbers need to be controlled to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis to cattle. It's controversial, and there is an alternative.

Joining us now to talk about it is Amy Martin, who spent the last year reporting on bison for her podcast: Threshold.

Eric Whitney: Can you give us a quick refresher on why nearly every year some number of Yellowstone bison are killed?

Amy Martin: Well, it basically has to with the fact that we really have not figured out where to put the Yellowstone bison that want to leave the park. In the mid-1980s the bison started leaving Yellowstone National Park, and so the State of Montana started hazing them back into the park, sometimes shipping some of them to slaughter. Basically it just started this controversy between the State of Montana and the National Park Service that continues to this day.

EW: But there is an alternative to killing Yellowstone bison to prevent the spread of brucellosis, that's been studied, right? What is this alternative?

AM: Just to make sure that everybody's up to speed, brucellosis is a bacterial disease that some of the bison have, that they originally caught from cattle, and which now they can theoretically give back to cattle. That's never actually happened in the wild, but it is possible, it's been proven in a lab. So that's a big part of the controversy here, is the State of Montana doesn't want these animals to be onto state land where they could potentially wander onto cattle ranches and potentially spread brucellosis to cattle.

Amy Martin is a freelancer who has reported on bison and natural resource issues for Montana Public Radio and NPR.
Amy Martin is a freelancer who has reported on bison and natural resource issues for Montana Public Radio and NPR.

But there is an alternative called the quarantine process, and this is something that the National Park Service has actually tried in two different pilot projects. One of them happened on one of Ted Turner's Montana ranches, and one of them happened at the Ft. Peck Indian reservation. And the idea with the quarantine process is that you - first of all any bison that test positive at the park boundary are put down. But even if an animal tests negative for brucellosis, but has been exposed to it, disease could still develop later.

EW: So this quarantine that's been proposed is out on the Ft. Peck reservation in northeastern Montana, right? And when it's verified that the animals that would be sent to Ft. Peck are brucellosis free, then those animals could be shipped elsewhere, right?

AM: Yeah, exactly. And Robert Magnan, who's the head of the wildlife department for the Ft. Peck Tribes has already done a 5 year pilot project, and it worked. They didn't have any bison escape from their quarantine facility, and at the end of it they ended up with a large proportion who never developed brucellosis, who then could be used to help start herds in other places. And there's actually a fair number of tribes, and conservation groups, and zoos and some other places around the country that are really wanting these Yellowstone bison, because of the specialness of their genetics. These animals are in demand.

So there's this weird situation where there's all these groups and people that are wanting the bison, and then we have sort of too many bison [Yellowstone National Park]. But we're having a hard time connecting those two things.

EW: And there was an environmental assessment done over a year ago, right? The National Park Service assessed this quarantine proposal and concluded that it's worth trying, is that right?

AM: Yeah. Like most environmental assessments, there's a range of alternatives that are presented, and then the Park Service sort of chooses their preferred option. And their preferred option in this case was to use the Ft. Peck quarantine facility on an ongoing basis. That was released in January of 2016, and it's just kind of been stalled out. There's been no decision, and once again this year we're sending even more bison to slaughter than we have in a long time.

EW: And you followed up with a couple of federal agencies to find out why the quarantine proposal hasn't moved forward. What did you find out?

AM: Honestly I haven't been able to get a straight answer on why we haven't made a decision here. They could pick another alternative, or they could say, we recognize those concerns, but we don't think that they are strong enough to stop this from moving forward, but neither of those things are happening. It's just completely kind of gone underground.

EW: And when you've asked the federal agencies involved for interviews, they've just declined, right?

AM: Yeah, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is one of the groups that's raised concerns about this, a gentleman named Don Herriott, and he chose not to be interviewed, and also the person who's really responsible for making the decision at this point as I understand it is the regional director of the National Park Service and that's a person named Sue Masica and she also declined my request for an interview.

EW: So what do you think is next for the quarantine proposal? Do you think Yellowstone is going to be in the same position next year as we are now, still helping to facilitate the slaughter of maybe hundreds of bison instead of sending them somewhere else?

AM: You know, I've asked lots of people who know a lot more about this than I do, and they all just kind of shrug their shoulders. I think a lot of the key players here don't seem to know why no decision has been made, and so therefore they don't really know when a decision will be made or if one will be made.

EW: Amy Martin has spent the last year reporting on bison in America for her podcast Threshold. You can listen to it on our website,  and it's broadcast on Montana Public Radio Sundays at 6:00 p.m.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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