A disease-free herd of Yellowstone National Park bison that was originally envisioned to populate state or tribal lands to return the animals to the Great Plains will soon find a new home.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks announced Monday that it is seeking proposals from groups and agencies to take the roughly 135 bison for conservation purposes.
"We're waiting to see what kind of proposals we'll get," said Ken McDonald, FWP's wildlife bureau chief. "We expect tribal proposals for sure."
The bison come from a group of 88 that were transferred from quarantine facilities outside of Yellowstone to Ted Turner's Green Ranch in 2010. Under an agreement with the former media magnate, he gets to keep 75 percent of the animals' offspring in exchange for giving them a place to roam.
FWP had expected that by the end of the five-year agreement, the state would have a bison management plan and possibly a place to locate the herd. The Marias River Wildlife Management Area, along the Rocky Mountain Front, and Spotted Dog WMA near Anaconda were two state-owned parcels that were originally considered.
But public opposition and the election of a new governor temporarily shelved the management plan, although tentative talks have restarted, and a meeting is planned on April 15-16 in Lewistown.
"It's just such a hot topic," McDonald said.
The announcement comes only days after the state of Montana and Yellowstone National Park announced that they would be crafting a new environmental impact statement to consider possible changes for managing wild Yellowstone bison and the disease brucellosis.
"They are totally independent," McDonald said. "That was just a timing coincidence."
But Helena conservationist Jim Posewitz said the EIS is a hopeful sign that the state may be reconsidering its treatment of Yellowstone bison.
"It's pretty clear the current treatment of bison around Yellowstone National Park is an embarrassment as far as wildlife management," Posewitz said.
He said it's also important to keep the genetics of such an important herd as Yellowstone's bison separated in case an illness or disease threatens to wipe out the herd.
"They don't want to have all of their bison in one place," he said.
Under the agreement with Turner, he will be able to keep 120 of the 160 Yellowstone bison offspring born on the Green Ranch as pay for keeping the animals. Additional bison will also be born this spring, of which Turner would keep 75 percent.
In 2010, a coalition of wildlife advocates asked a Montana judge to overturn the agreement with Turner, but did not prevail.
The bison were originally part of the Bison Quarantine Feasibility Study, a research project that began in 2004 directed by FWP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The research was conducted at a facility near Corwin Springs, north of Yellowstone National Park, to produce bison free of brucellosis, a disease that can cause some pregnant bison, elk and domestic cattle to abort their calves.
The brucellosis-free bison have been part of the research herd since 2005 and 2006 from two capture groups. All animals have been tested for brucellosis twice a year, with most tested at least 10 times, some up to 15 times, and have always tested negative, according to FWP. Both Montana Department of Livestock and APHIS consider this group of bison to be brucellosis free.
Proposals to take the disease-free bison must include a bison conservation and management plan, and describe suitable habitat and secure living space for the animals.
More information is available online at fwp.mt.gov. Click Recent Public Notices. Proposals, which are due April 30, can be sent to Bison Translocation, Wildlife Division, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.