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Captured bison

The Stephens Creek bison capture facility on the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park is where bison are trapped for shipment to slaughter or separated for quarantine. 

CHICO HOT SPRINGS RESORT, Mont. — Federal officials’ recent offer to transfer five Yellowstone National Park bison bulls to the Fort Peck tribe in Montana felt a “little bit like it’s a blackmail situation,” a tribal representative said Wednesday.

The agreement would allow the transfer of the bison to a certified reservation holding facility now that the animals have “graduated” from brucellosis quarantine at a Corwin Springs holding facility operated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Majel Russell, legal counsel for the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, told the Interagency Bison Management Plan partners on Wednesday that agreeing to the conditions that APHIS officials set down in a six-page memorandum of agreement would prevent the tribe from ever fully operating their new, but still unused, bison facility for all three phases of quarantine.

The MOA proffered to the tribe required continued “phase three” testing of the bulls while in quarantine on the reservation and also included a requirement that the tribe obtain insurance for any damage caused by escaped bison to property outside the reservation, which Russell called “burdensome.”

“We’re not willing to sign an MOA that boxes us only into assurance testing,” Russell said.

“This is the group that should be making the decision,” she said to the gathering, adding that the fact that Washington, D.C., officials are controlling the decision making turns it into a “political issue” rather than one based on science.

Russell said the tribe would agree to a one-time memorandum of understanding just to receive the five bulls, but the officials “refused that” suggestion.

“They want us to agree to never do phase two” testing, Russell added. “We believe we could do the whole thing.

“I don’t understand why we have IBMP, why we’re not making decisions and strongly recommending to make those decisions right here.”

P. Ryan Clarke, regional epidemiologist for APHIS, told the group there’s “not a lot of two-way communication on their intent” between his D.C. superiors and him, so he could offer no explanation.

Yellowstone National Park superintendent Cam Sholly stressed to the gathering that his agency is “very supportive” of the quarantine program and would be interested in expanding the number of quarantine facilities. The Fort Peck Tribe built their quarantine corrals for that purpose, to accept Yellowstone bison and conduct the many phases of quarantine on the reservation.

But the Montana Department of Livestock and APHIS do not want bison that may have brucellosis outside what’s known as the “designated surveillance area” surrounding Yellowstone. The fear is that even if the bison are quarantined, such a situation would compromise the brucellosis-free status of the rest of Montana’s livestock industry.

“We want to maintain confidence” with the state livestock industry’s trading partners, said Mike Honeycutt, executive officer for the Montana Board of Livestock.

That said, he added, “The state eagerly awaits resolution between APHIS and Fort Peck.”

Sholly said park officials are concerned their existing Stephens Creek bison handling facility is not “creating a pipeline of disease-free bison” that’s predictable for tribes looking to add Yellowstone’s pure bison genetics to their existing herds. It also means the main way for the park to continue to reduce the park’s bison populations is left mainly to tribal hunters and a shipment to slaughter program.

Sholly said Yellowstone would like to see the state of Montana and Custer Gallatin National Forest step up as partners and build quarantine facilities so the entire live-capture effort is not focused solely on the 75 to 100 animals the park can hold and process every three years for males and five years for females. Park officials will capture no bison for quarantine this winter because their quarantine facility is full.

APHIS operates a separate quarantine facility at Corwin Springs where it is committed to operating for another three years.

“What happens after that is uncertain,” Clarke said.

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