As Montanans wrangle over the transfer of disease-free bison from Yellowstone National Park to public and tribal lands, the American Prairie Foundation is quietly importing 70 bison calves from Elk Island National Park in Canada this month to its lands in northeastern Montana.
"It's easier because there's less controversy," said Damien Austin, the senior foreman for the foundation's American Prairie Reserve. "This is a brucellosis-free herd."
Elk Island's herd was created by animals imported from the Pablo-Allard herd in northwestern Montana in 1907. So a line of Montana-born bison is being imported back to the ancestral homeland — again. APF imported 93 bison from Elk Island in 2009. Elk Island is located about an hour east of Edmonton in the province of Alberta.
"These are the great-great-great-grandchildren of the animals that came from Montana and we're sending them back home," said Stephen Flemming, superintendent of Elk Island National Park, in a story for the Edmonton Journal.
"It's a pretty cool story that it's come full circle in the last 100 years," said Dick Dolan, the foundation's managing director.
The American Prairie Foundation, which operates the 123,346-acre reserve (83,551 acres of leased land, 39,795 of deeded property), is aiming to someday create a 3.5-million-acre wildlife sanctuary by buying ranches as well as purchasing grazing leases to adjoining federal lands. The group's largest neighbor is the 1.1-million-acre C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Numerous Bureau of Land Management parcels dot the landscape, as well.
The foundation began transplanting bison in 2005, utilizing animals from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota and The Nature Conservancy, as well as Elk Island, to build its herd up to 130 animals.
"We're trying to grow the herd as fast as we can so we don't bottleneck them genetically," Austin said.
DNA tests showed that the soon-to-be-moved Canadian bison are genetically pure, containing no cattle genes from interbreeding. That's important to the foundation, which got rid of 96 bison it imported from Wind Cave National Park after it was discovered they contained cattle genes.
"It's important to do everything we can to optimize the genetic robustness of this herd," Dolan said.
Elk Island National Park officials cull the park's Great Plains bison herd every two years to keep the population manageable inside its 120-square-mile fenced property, said the park's Maureen Shenher. The herd is kept separated from the park's wood bison herd.
The bison calves that will be trucked to Montana later this month are divided equally between males and females. They have been vaccinated for tuberculosis and brucellosis and held in quarantine in Canada for 30 days at a cost to the foundation of about $2,000 apiece. Once they are moved, the bison will be vaccinated again and held in quarantine at the reserve until March, when they will be released to join the reserve's other bison -- provided there are no problems.
"We've got to go through an amazing bunch of quarantine stuff," Austin said.
Even with quarantines on each end of the transfer, the movement of disease-free bison from Canada to Montana seems much easier when compared to all the divisive debate, public rancor and legislative posturing that has stalled the movement of disease-free bison from Yellowstone National Park to public and tribal lands in Montana.
Bills were introduced in the last legislative session to ban the movement of all bison to public lands in the state. The bills died in committee. The state also withdrew its proposal to move bison onto two state wildlife management areas until the process is further reviewed.
FWP is crafting a state bison management plan that it will roll out to the public for comment. In the meantime, in December the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved plans to transfer 68 quarantined bison to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations, the details of which are now being ironed out. The reservations are located on either side of the American Prairie Reserve.
Dolan said the American Prairie Reserve can dodge the controversy surrounding Yellowstone because its animals are considered livestock, not wildlife, and because they are disease free -- even though the Yellowstone bison proposed for transfer are also disease-free.
"But it's hard to separate that fact from the Yellowstone herd," Dolan said.
The bison on the reserve roam roughly 14,000 acres of the remote grassland and badlands area. Austin said there are plans to expand the acreage available to the reserve's bison after some adjoining federal lands are re-fenced this summer. With the addition of that acreage, the herd could eventually be expanded to 440 animals, he said.
Scientists have determined that the number of bison required to maintain 90 percent of a herd's genetic diversity is somewhere between 400 and 1,000 head. At last count, only 26 percent of the bison conservation herds in the world have populations of more than 400. APF is aiming to eventually have a herd of 1,000 bison, Dolan said, which will take some time and a lot of additional fencing.
"Still, it's a great goal," he said.