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Although they all have ear tags, some are branded and they roam inside an electrified fence, visitors shouldn’t assume that the bearded bison roaming a portion of north-central Montana are domesticated.

“The herd dynamics, I can’t tear myself away from them,” said Damien Austin, operations manager for the American Prairie Reserve in north-central Montana. “During the rut, the big bulls will fight for 20 minutes. It’s pretty impressive seeing two 2,000-pound animals lock horns, grunting and pushing each other around.”

Being around the bison almost daily, Austin has become completely engrossed in herd dynamics — how the animals interact with each other, dominance and submission — and the different noises they make. He’s also intrigued by how the group of animals will seasonally morph from small groups that mix and blend before coming back to one large group during the mating season. Because it is relatively new, the herd is also fairly young, but bison can live to be about 25 years old and start breeding as young as 2 years old.

Going up

Entering its 12th year, the nonprofit American Prairie Reserve has so far purchased 305,000 acres toward its predicted goal of 2.4 million acres by 2036. That objective includes the hope that the nearby 1.1 million-acre Charles M. Russell and UL Bend national wildlife refuges would also one day allow the bison to roam its property and to turn the reserve’s bison over to the state of Montana to manage as wildlife — provided the state ever adopts a bison management plan.

By then, the hope is to have grown the bison herd to 10,000 — the largest conservation herd in North America — to simulate the free-roaming ancestral herds that once dotted the area before market hunters nearly exterminated the animals in the 1800s. In the near term, APR hopes to grow its herd to 1,000 animals by 2018.

That’s a big jump from the initial herd of only 16 animals imported from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota that the reserve transplanted to the plains in 2005. But the herd has grown fairly quickly thanks to other transplants from Wind Cave and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The Elk Island herd has genetics from Montana bison. In the early 1900s, bison from the Pablo herd in the Mission Valley were rounded up and shipped to Alberta. So the ancestors of those Montana bison have, in essence, returned home.

Coming in to this spring’s calving season, American Prairie Reserve’s bison herd stood at 440 animals, but depending on the success rate of pregnant bison cows, that could increase to about 600 bison in a couple of weeks. Already the reserve has the third largest conservation herd of bison in the nation, not far behind Badlands National Park’s herd of 650, but still far from Yellowstone National Park’s 4,600 bison.

Not free roaming

To give the bison room to roam, APR’s staff and volunteers have torn down 43 miles of barbed wire fences and rebuilt others to make them wildlife friendly. The bison fence also contains a solar-powered electrified wire to keep the animals inside the 31,000-acre bison range.

“We spend a lot of time making sure they stay here,” Austin said, which includes checking the fence every week to make sure it’s functioning properly.

Four radio GPS collars on select lead cows help Austin keep tabs on the herd. The bison’s location is uploaded every two hours, and Austin simply logs on to his cellphone to see their last location.

“Occasionally we’ve had one or two get out,” he added. “But if they get out we just talk with the neighbor and deal with it.”

No one has ever shot an escaped bison, he added. But some day a hunter might. Although the reserve has not yet developed a hunting plan, Austin said, “Hunting will definitely be part of that (herd) control in the future.”

The reserve does have some of its land in Montana’s Block Management Program, though, allowing public hunting of wild game and on part of its property. It also allows hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding on much of its property — except where the land is leased. Visitors can call the reserve or log on to the APR’s website to request a map with directions and get tips on where to go. There’s also a public campground on the reserve. The cost to stay is $10 a night.

Balancing act

American Prairie Reserve’s goal is to grow its land base at a quick enough pace to keep up with the steadily expanding bison herd. It’s a delicate balancing act that may one day require culling of animals from the herd to slow its growth. The herd is naturally reproducing without any breeding program.

“That’s one of the exciting parts of the job, adaptive management,” Austin said. “The plan will change if more land becomes available.

“The amount of land versus the amount of bison — the land has to be ready for the bison,” Austin said. “We have to keep a sharp eye to making sure neither one gets ahead of ourselves.”

For now, Austin said the reserve doesn’t have plans to add any more bison to the herd except to increase its genetic diversity. As part of that task, in 2011 the reserve staff rounded up the entire bison population and drew blood and tissue samples for DNA analysis. From that, Austin found out that 96 animals had cattle genes so those animals were donated to other organizations and tribal groups. Even those that tested positive for cattle genes had only small amounts of bovine DNA, less than 1 percent, Austin said.

“We’re not looking to boost numbers with transplants anymore,” Austin said. “We want to boost the genetic diversity with bison from other remnant herds, but we have to test them to make sure they don’t have cattle genes.

“That’s our next step, seeking out unique genetic individuals,” he added. “Our goal is to have the most genetically diverse bison herd in the world.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.