CORWIN SPRINGS — The sharp bang of bison hooves striking the sides of metal stock trailers punctuated the departure of 80 quarantined Yellowstone National Park bison on Wednesday to their new digs on billionaire Ted Turner’s Green Ranch two hours away. Another eight bulls will be moved today.
It was an historic moment and an advancement for conservation, said Russ Miller, general manager of Turner’s 15 ranches. Wearing tan coveralls and a railroader’s cap, Miller watched his staff and five federal workers quickly corral and load the animals from two ranches leased by the federal government just north of Yellowstone’s northern entrance.
“I’m just glad it’s not exciting,” Miller said. “It could have been a rodeo. We’re just trying to keep the stress level as low as possible.”
The move comes five years after the first brucellosis-free bison were quarantined. The idea of the cooperating federal and state agencies was to create a pool of animals that would eventually be allowed to roam outside Yellowstone’s borders on state or tribal lands. For now, that will have to wait while the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks draws up a plan to allow such a scenario.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed Tuesday by FWP, the Montana Department of Livestock and Turner Enterprises, the quarantined bison will be held for five years on Turner’s 12,000-acre ranch west of the Madison River. The five-year term buys FWP time to craft its plan.
The 88 bison initially will be held in a corral at the ranch, Miller said, allowing them time to acclimate to the sights, sounds and smells of the area. They will be separate from Turner’s other 3,500 head of bison that roam the Flying D Ranch across the Madison River.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turner Enterprises will keep 75 percent of the bison’s offspring as payment for their upkeep. The other 25 percent and the original 88 will be returned to Montana.
“By then, hopefully we’ll have a better idea of where they fit on the landscape,” said Ron Aasheim, FWP spokesman. “If not, we would look to other states.”
Miller said the bison that Turner Enterprises keeps will be tested to see how genetically similar they are to the herd of 1,050 animals on Turner’s New Mexico ranch. Miller said those animals are also descendants of Yellowstone bison, 150 of which were moved there in the 1930s.
Turner is the largest bison owner in the nation, with a collective herd of 55,000 animals. Miller estimated that about 1,000 of those animals are sold for “grass harvest” to individuals who shoot them for the meat. Another 50 trophy bulls are killed for a fee. To keep the herds at a manageable size, others are shipped to slaughter in Colorado. Some end up on the menu at Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants, and the rest go to Whole Foods Market, a natural and organic grocery chain, Miller said. None of the Yellowstone bison will be harvested.
For the past four to five years, the quarantined bison have been spread across three ranches leased by the government just north of Gardiner — the Slip and Slide, Rigler and Brogan ranches. Another 40 quarantined bison, two-thirds of which are pregnant, will remain on the Slip and Slide for another year before being moved to the Green Ranch. Those will fall under a separate agreement.
The ranches sit on a bench at the base of a narrow V carved between the looming Gallatin and Absaroka mountain ranges. It’s a claustrophobic place, hemmed in as it is by the mountains, the Yellowstone River and Highway 89 all vying for space. The landscape has created a natural funnel, making it easy for the five federal and state agencies overseeing bison management to keep the animals from wandering outside Yellowstone’s northern boundary.
So far this year, few of the estimated 3,300 bison have ventured outside the park. In 2008, more than 1,400 were slaughtered as they tried to migrate from the snowbound park. Later that year, an easement was signed allowing 25 to 100 radio-collared bison that have been proven brucellosis-free or that contain an intrauterine transmitting device to wander across Church Universal and Triumphant property to access nearby national forest lands. Federal and state agencies paid a total of $3.3 million for the 30-year easement. But so far, no bison have used the corridor.
Bison advocates have denounced the agencies’ management of the animals, noting they’ve been singled out for harsh treatment while hundreds of elk, some of which are also infected with brucellosis, wander unfettered into and out of the park. The government’s General Accountability Office also found fault with the Interagency Bison Management Plan for failing to expand the area in which bison could roam outside Yellowstone.
Will things be different in five years? Miller hopes so.
“Turn ’em loose, that’s what this whole thing is designed for,” he said.