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Yellowstone National Park starts capturing and shipping bison to reduce population

Bison are being held in the National Park Service's bison capture facility at Stephens Creek, shown here in 2015, in preparation for shipment to slaughter.

Quarantined bison from Yellowstone National Park have been illegally released for the second time in weeks, increasing the likelihood they'll be killed.

The latest release of 73 bison happened sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning after someone "compromised" the fence at Stephens Creek quarantine facility near Gardiner. There were 96 animals at the facility. Not all the animals wandered off.

A park spokeswoman declined to say whether the fence at Stephens Creek had been cut open again, as it was Jan. 16 when 52 bull bison escaped. Both break-ins happened overnight.

"There were 96 bison. Of those 96 there were 73 that were released," said Vicki Regula, Yellowstone National Park public affairs assistant. "As of right now, we know many of those bison have remained in the immediate area, and most have returned to their pen."

Park officials have been tight-lipped about the damage and the conditions at Stephens Creek that would allow the facility to be broken into twice. They haven't identified a suspect.

Regula said she couldn't say whether Stephens Creek has any overnight security staff.

More than 120 bison have been released from Stephens Creek in the past six weeks. Animals have been brought to the facility as recently as last week. American Indian tribes were to receive 20 yearling bison females and 40 to 70 males as breeding stock for establishing genetically pure herds. Preparing the animals for transfer is a two-year process, during which the quarantined bison are determined not to carry brucellosis, a disease that can cause livestock to miscarry.

About half of Yellowstone bison are thought to be infected with brucellosis. 

The transfer of brucellosis-free bison to American Indian tribes is part of a 17-year plan to cull the Yellowstone bison population to about 3,000. Hunting is also part of that plan.

Park Superintendent Dan Wenk told the Associated Press the person releasing the bison was threatening the quarantine program and ensuring more bison would go to slaughter. Such is the case with several of the bison released Jan. 16.

Regula said several of the bulls that wandered through the cut fence in January would no longer be eligible for transfer to American Indian tribes.

There's no 10-second rule for program bison that hit non-quarantined ground. Any recovered animal would have to restart the two-year quarantine process.

The oldest bulls released in January would be too old for transfer by the end of another quarantine period, Regula said. Those bulls will stay in the general population and be subject to the staged area outside Yellowstone's north boundary and potentially slaughtered should they wander further north down Paradise Valley.  

The Fort Peck Tribes were supposed to receive the bulls lost in January to expand their existing herd.

Bulls born in 2017 that were released in January could return to the quarantine program, Regula said.

The Stephens Creek facility was only recently converted for quarantine use. The site was previously a bison trap, but last April National Park Service officials and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began working with Montana livestock officials to create a new quarantine area. There, bison were to be tested for brucellosis, with animals held for up to two years in order to be certified disease free.

Cost savings was the primary objective for the site conversion. The bison had previously been transported farther north to Corwin Springs for containment, which cost more. Immediately after the site conversion, 24 bulls committed to the Fort Peck Tribes were located there. Male bison must be quarantined without incident for at least a year before being certified.

The bison quarantine program has been criticized by wildlife groups who say a broader solution is needed to protect the non-quarantined bison that face slaughter by state and federal officials in the name of controlling brucellosis.

Earlier this week, Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center asked a federal judge to shutter the Stephens Creek facility for safety reasons. The facility is near where American Indian bison hunts are staged. 

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.