Bison capture facility

Bison being held in the National Park Service's bison capture facility at Stephens Creek, shown here in 2015, are in limbo as federal and state agencies tangle.

Forty Yellowstone National Park bison captured last winter with the idea that they would eventually be transferred to a tribal herd have been caught in a power struggle.

“Our intent would have been to ship the bison as soon as we could have,” as early as last March, said Morgan Warthin, Yellowstone spokeswoman. “We will continue to look for options.”

The more recent option was to send the 40 bison to slaughter since Montana would not allow them to be relocated to a tribal herd in the state.

“That’s prohibited in Montana code, the shipment of bison to tribes if they are not brucellosis free,” said Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian. “They haven’t completed the quarantine protocol.”

And he added the Park Service’s facility at Stephens Creek, where bison are corralled before shipment to slaughter and the 40 bison are being held, does not meet quarantine requirements.

Warthin wrote in an email that for the last 11 months Interagency Bison Management Plan partners "were aware that once bison operations began, the facility could not support the 40 bison and they would need to be moved." She agreed with Zaluski that "Stephens Creek is not and was never intended to be a quarantine facility."

On Jan. 19 Gov. Steve Bullock blocked the National Park Service from shipping the 40 bison to slaughter by halting the shipment of all Yellowstone bison to slaughter. Such a move seems contradictory to Montana officials’ previously stated concerns that the Yellowstone bison population be dramatically reduced and kept at a population of around 3,500. Right now the Yellowstone herd is estimated at about 5,500.

“The governor’s office is working with a number of agencies to try and find a home for those (40) bison temporarily so the Park Service can ship the other bison to slaughter,” Zaluski said.

“He wanted to save whatever bison he could that were going to the tribes,” he added.

“While we welcome the governor’s temporary reprieve, I’m disappointed that the process seems to have stalled,” said Robert Magnan, Fort Peck Fish and Game director, in a press release from Defenders of Wildlife. “This is a tragedy on many levels. The Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation have spent a tremendous amount of resources to prepare to receive these bison. It’s difficult to accept that our generosity has been rejected for no legitimate reason. And it’s a tragedy for those bison which will likely be slaughtered now instead of helping grow conservation herds for our tribes and the American public. We’re still prepared to meet any requirements to do this, but it appears the National Park Service has closed the door on us.”

So who is to blame?

Bison advocates like Magnan are blaming the Park Service for not finalizing its bison quarantine and relocation plan, which is still awaiting approval from the agency’s regional director.

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“A draft plan was released on Jan. 13, 2016, with a preferred alternative to collaborate with Fort Peck Reservation as the bison quarantine facility site,” said a press release from Defenders of Wildlife. “More than 300,000 people commented in support of this alternative by the Feb. 29, 2016, deadline. A final decision is long overdue. Over 99,326 people have contacted the National Park Service since December 2016 requesting final approval of this plan. However, it is now apparent that the NPS regional director will not sign the plan, and the NPS will maintain the existing program which sends all captured bison to slaughter regardless of their brucellosis status.”

Warthin explained the situation differently.

“NPS, (Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service) and the state of Montana have not been able to reach an agreement on the shipment of those 40 bison to Fort Peck,” she said. “We are hopeful, but at this point we’re in a holding pattern.”

Another 200 bison are being held in the same Stephens Creek bison capture facility, just north of the community of Gardiner. Warthin said the Park Service was beginning to prepare those animals for shipment to slaughter when it received the governor’s executive order blocking their shipment to processing facilities where the meat is then distributed to several tribes. The Park Service had planned to ship anywhere between 900 to 1,300 bison to slaughter this winter.

“Many options are on the table right now,” Warthin said.

Defenders of Wildlife, National Wildlife Federation and World Wildlife Fund noted that the groups had worked with the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes in 2012 and 2014 to bring Yellowstone bison from quarantine facilities to the two reservations to complete their quarantine process and restore conservation herds. Those herds now total over 300 animals. But the Yellowstone bison transferred back then had been held in quarantine for years, not months.

Warthin said Yellowstone officials' "ultimate goal for bison is to allow this wild, migratory animal to move more freely across the landscape as other wildlife."