CHEYENNE, Wyo. - Some ranchers are opposed to a proposal to move 14 wild Yellowstone bison to a state park in southeast Wyoming, despite assurances from state officials that the animals are free of an animal disease that can cause abortions among cattle.
Wyoming suggested Guernsey State Park as a possible home as Montana seeks to move them out of a Gardiner, Mont., quarantine facility and avoid their slaughter. Montana is also considering sending another 74 bison to billionaire Ted Turner's ranch in that state.
Eastern Wyoming's ranching community is skeptical about introducing the animals in an area that's free of brucellosis. Fears over the disease helped sink an earlier attempt to move the quarantined animals to Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation.
"People that I've talked to, they'd like to keep brucellosis, any chance of having brucellosis, out of the herds in this part of the country," said Charlie Stevenson, a Wheatland rancher and board member for the Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming.
State and federal officials say the bison have been tested extensively for brucellosis and see no risk in releasing the animals elsewhere.
"If I didn't think that, and if (federal animal health officials) didn't think that, neither of us would entertain any consideration of taking them out of there," said Jim Logan, Wyoming state veterinarian.
The animals have been held for several years at the Montana facility as part of a state-federal program to isolate and protect bison free of brucellosis, which is found in many of the animals in the Yellowstone area.
Logan said relocating the disease-free bison would help conserve the genetics of the Yellowstone National Park bison herd, and possibly someday enable wildlife managers to remove brucellosis-infected bison from Yellowstone and replace them with clean animals.
Montana and Wyoming are both conducting environmental assessments of the Guernsey proposal. The Wyoming part of Montana's plan has been overshadowed by debate over the proposal to move 74 bison to a 12,000-acre parcel within Turner's 113,000-acre ranch south of Bozeman, Mont. Montana is scheduled to make a decision on its plan at the end of January.
At Guernsey, the bison would live on about 1,200 undeveloped acres surrounded on three sides by Guernsey Reservoir.
Todd Stevenson, the park's superintendent - no relation to Charlie Stevenson - said the pasture would be double-fenced, including an interior electrical fence. The pasture boundary next to private and National Guard land would have a third layer of fencing.
Sen. John Hines, R-Gillette and a member of the Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Team, said he understands ranchers' concerns but is open to the Guernsey proposal as a pilot program.
"If we're going to have a pilot program working on this, I think the location there is probably as good as we can find just because of the water on three sides," Hines said. "There's less chance of them getting out and co-mingling."
The cost to build fencing and corrals to house the bison at Guernsey would be an estimated $70,000, said Domenic Bravo, Wyoming State Parks division administrator. The department doesn't have that money, Bravo said, but he's "pretty confident" it can build the project using donated materials and labor, including inmate workers.
Bravo said the bison will serve as a draw for visitors and will enable the park to continue its conservation mission.