Taking a step toward eventually transporting bison to the Fort Peck Reservation, Yellowstone National Park has formalized its process for quarantining bison.
On Wednesday the park announced its Finding of No Significant Impact regarding the quarantine program.
"This document nails down what it would look like for this effort," said Tim Reed, bison management coordinator for the park. "Fort Peck is added in and everyone is in agreement with that."
The FONSI was signed by the National Park Service's regional director, Sue Masica, and Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk.
“Quarantine is a positive step forward for bison conservation,” Wenk said in a press release. “The NPS will continue to work closely with tribes, the state of Montana, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and other stakeholders to implement this program.”
The quarantine program is aimed at "augmenting or creating new herds of plains bison, enhancing cultural and nutritional opportunities for Native American, and reducing the number of shipments of Yellowstone bison to slaughter facilities," according to the FONSI.
"We’re thankful to the Park Service for moving forward with this decision." said Caroline Byrd, Greater Yellowstone Coalition executive director, in a statement. "It means there is another tool in the toolbox for conserving and managing Yellowstone’s bison."
A majority of Yellowstone bison are known to be infected with brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant cattle to abort. The disease is believed to be transmitted from an infected bison cow's fetal material when it gives birth, although transformation in the wild between bison and cattle has never been confirmed. Consequently, shipments of the live bison, as well as their wandering from the confines of Yellowstone, has long concerned Montana ranchers.
This past winter more than 1,200 bison were removed from Yellowstone by hunters as well as by capture and shipment to slaughter to reduce the size of the park's herd and in an attempt to lessen migration into Montana. Another 98 bison were being held in the park's Stephens Creek capture facility for quarantine testing.
Those bison have now dwindled to around 90 after some animals tested positive for exposure to brucellosis. The majority of the animals are male — about 75 — since they are seen as less of a risk for transmitting the disease.
"We would hope to have toward the end of the year 50 to 60 males to move on," Reed said.
Bison would be quarantined only when the park population is above the agreed interagency threshold, which is 3,000. After spring births, the bison population is expected to be around 4,200 animals this year.
The Park Service is negotiating with APHIS and the state of Montana to send test groups of male bison that have repeatedly tested negative for brucellosis exposure — every 30 to 45 days for about eight to nine months — to a quarantine facility on the Fort Peck Reservation, according to the FONSI. The Fort Peck corral in Eastern Montana can hold up to 300 bison.
Once at the reservation's corral, testing and quarantine would continue. The goal would be to have the park bison shipped to Fort Peck Reservation before the winter bison culling, shipping and hunting season begins anew.
But that's a separate agreement that is still in the works, Reed said, although "it's dangerously close to being finalized.
"The state doesn't have any sovereignity over Fort Peck, but we do have to have concurrence and agreement with the state," Reed said, mainly over how the quarantine process is conducted.
Reed also said the park is open to other tribes constructing quarantine facilities, although he acknowledged it is a huge financial and personnel commitment.
"Right now it's pretty modest numbers, but it has room to grow," he said.
Fifty-two bison that Yellowstone staff had kept in its corral since last year as part of the quarantine protocol were released by vandals in January who cut the fencing.
Although transferring the live bison to the reservation was considered dangerous by some Montana officials who opposed the idea out of fear that the animals could spread brucellosis, APHIS has said the risk of transmission was “extremely low,” but would not consider the risk “negligible” based on the possibility of rare events, the FONSI stated.
"The likelihood of brucellosis transmission from bison being transported in sealed trailers on highways to livestock or other wildlife along the route between (Yellowstone) and the Fort Peck Reservation is miniscule given no detected transmission since 2000 despite the relocation of more than 5,000 bison, primarily to slaughter," the FONSI stated.
"This is hard-won ground," Reed said. "Really, it's the first potential movement of Yellowstone bison outside of the park other than consigning them to slaughter."
Yellowstone's decision comes in the wake of a public comment period on an environmental assessment and NPS staff consultations with state, federal, and tribal partners. Responses to public comments on the EA can be found at: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/BisonQuarantine.