Tribal representatives passionately argued Thursday to allow modification of a Montana statute to allow the shipment of the Yellowstone National Park’s culturally significant bison to the Fort Peck Tribe’s specially built, 320-acre quarantine facility.

House Bill 419 was presented to the House Agricultural Committee by Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, who has 70 years of experience working with livestock. The bill changes the law to allow shipment of diseased bison but keeps shipment authorization under the approval of the state veterinarian and governor.

“I moved to do this with a lot of trepidation,” he told the committee. “You don’t need to tell me about the issue of brucellosis in this state. It can be a major impact on the livestock industry. … I did this understanding we need to move forward.”

Montana has asked Yellowstone to deplete its bison herd as one way to lessen the spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant cattle to abort. As part of their cooperating agreement with the state and other agencies, Yellowstone has annually been shipping bison to slaughter with the meat going to Indian tribes. Shipment of bison has also been allowed to a federal facility in Colorado for testing.

Proponents of HB 419 argued that since such shipment is already being allowed, it’s “discriminatory” not to allow some of the same animals to be hauled to a tribal quarantine facility in northeastern Montana. The corral has been built to federal standards and is surrounded by a much larger 13,000-acre bison pasture that is 40 miles to the north and south and 20 miles to the east and west of any other ranch.

Mike Honeycutt, of the Montana Board of Livestock, said the issues don’t compare.

“The final location is the issue … where we have no regulation or surveillance,” he said.

Representatives of Montana’s agricultural industries also stood in opposition to the bill, arguing that the change could jeopardize the state’s cattle trade with other states and countries.

“That’s going to put us at serious risk,” said Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stockgrowers Assocation.

The Fort Peck quarantine pasture was built to hold 300 to 500 bison. Tribes and wildlife groups helped fund the $500,000 facility which includes an electrified fence around the perimeter, according to tribal representatives. Animals would have to be held inside the pasture for three years, and be tested annually, before being declared disease free. Those repeatedly testing positive for the disease or any that might escape would be killed.

“The bottom line is the Fort Peck Tribes have a plan for testing bison that meets federal standards,” Curdy said.

He added that the current slaughter of Yellowstone’s bison is giving Montana a black eye and that with so few of them left the chance that, if their numbers dwindled, they might be declared threatened or endangered would take management out of the state’s hands completely.

“This does not allow for free-roaming bison,” he added. “This bill is about clearing up a statute.”

No action was taken on the measure.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.