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American Prairie Reserve To Expand Bison Testing, Transparency In Settlement Agreement

Overlooking the Missouri River from the American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Mont., June 2005.
Overlooking the Missouri River from the American Prairie Reserve in northeastern Mont., June 2005.

Correction: The original post said the American Prairie Reserve will expand its disease management plan by testing 325 bison each year for the bacterial disease brucellosis for the first five years and then 150 bison annually for the next five years. The story has been updated to reflect the American Prairie Reserve will test 325 bison total during the first five years of the settlement agreement and another 150 over the next five years.

Conservation and livestock groups have found a resolution to a long simmering bison disease management disagreement in northeast Montana. The compromise could help inform similar agreements if the American Prairie Reserve continues to expand its bison range.

Under the new 10 year settlement, the American Prairie Reserve will expand its disease management plan by testing 325 total bison for the bacterial disease brucellosis during the first five years and then another 150 bison over the following five years. All bison that have been tested will be tagged. Brucellosis, which can spread between cattle, elk and bison, can cause miscarriages and infertility.

The American Prairie Reserve will also vaccinate all newly introduced pre yearling bison heifers.

A board appointed by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation last week approved the agreement between the nonprofit that manages roughly 800 enclosed bison in Phillips County and the Phillips Conservation District, along with the South Phillips County Co-Operative State Grazing District and Phillips County Livestock Association.

Jay Bodner, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, was the presiding officer for the board.

“I would just commend each one of the parties for the work you put into this, and I know it was a difficult situation and, but there was a lot of good work that was done,” Bodner said.

The Phillips Conservation District passed a bison grazing ordinance in 2016 that requires all bison in the county to be tested and certified by a state veterinarian to be disease free and branded, tattooed or tagged to “track its health status.”

The American Prairie Reserve requested a “variance” or waiver to those sections in the ordinance, citing great practical difficulties and unnecessary hardship.

In 2017, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation convened a Board of Adjustment and appointed a Hearing Examiner to address and resolve the American Prairie Reserve’s variance petition. Last month, the American Prairie Reserve, Phillips Conservation District, South Phillips County Co-Operative State Grazing District and Phillips County Livestock Association reached a final settlement agreement, and on Thursday, the board granted the American Prairie Reserve's variance petition on the terms set forth in the final settlement agreement.

The American Prairie Reserve’s Senior Media and Government Relations Manager Beth Saboe said the biggest change with the settlement is that the reserve will provide the conservation and grazing districts and local cattle association with annual updates on bison and disease management.

“Since the beginning of us introducing bison back onto the landscape, we have always as a conservation organization met all state disease testing requirements. So this agreement just really helps to bring more transparency to how we are managing our bison herd and the health of our herd,” Saboe said.

Jenifer Anderson, district administrator for the Phillips Conservation District, said even though her group wanted all of the American Prairie Reserve bison to be tested for brucellosis, the district is glad to see more testing and tagging.

“We’re feeling hopeful that this is at least a step in the right direction,” Anderson said.

Saboe with the American Prairie Reserve said the nonprofit is optimistic it could reach similar agreements with other counties if needed in the future.

Fergus, Valley and McCone counties also have filed bison grazing ordinances. While the American Prairie Reserve does not manage bison outside Phillips County currently, the nonprofit’s long term goal is to expand from roughly 400,000 acres to 3 million acres and establish a herd of 10,000 bison.

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