Fifty-five wild bison were successfully relocated from Yellowstone National Park to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation last week. This was the first direct transfer from the park to the tribes through a quarantine program to make sure bison are disease-free.
A caravan of six trucks and trailers bring up the last batch of bull bison Friday mid-day. They drive into one of the reservation’s quarantine corrals — 120 acres of rolling hills carpeted with yellow wildflowers and native grass.
After lining up the trailers, the drivers give a nod and quickly open the doors.
Bison leap out and run across the prairie, kicking up dust. A local group called Tatanka Oyate Singers perform a song that translates to: The buffalo are coming. Again, they are coming.
This moment is about eight years in the making. For the tribes, the return of bison represents a return of their culture. For Yellowstone National Park, the transfer highlights an alternative to sending the national mammal to slaughter, and for the state of Montana, the assurance that these bison are disease-free means they cannot spread brucellosis to cattle.
“It’s a great time to celebrate, but [there's] a lot of work to do still on this front," Yellowstone’s superintendent Cameron (Cam) Sholly says. "I think this first 55 is very symbolic. We’ll be continuing to work toward what the future looks like and how we can expand these numbers in the future."
Yellowstone’s bison population is currently around 4,500, and it grows about 10-17 percent every year. The park’s borders do not.
In 1995, Montana sued the Park Service over bison that migrated out of Yellowstone onto state land. It was largely due to concern about a bacterial disease called brucellosis. It can spread between cattle, elk and bison if animals come into contact with infected afterbirth and causes pregnant animals to abort their fetuses.
There hasn’t been a confirmed case of bison spreading brucellosis to cattle, but wildlife officials say this is in large part due to management — hazing bison out of areas where cattle graze and keeping the herd size from getting too large.
More than 10,000 bison have been killed over the past several decades after leaving Yellowstone. Some of it is through tribal and public hunting but most occurs through a controversial ship-to-slaughter program. Last winter, about 350 bison were captured and sent to slaughter facilities.
Cam Sholly wants this to change.
"These 55 that we brought up here today, had they not gone through quarantine successfully, probably would have been shipped to slaughter. So the more that we can expand the quarantine program, the better we are at it, the less likely we’ll have to ship as many bison to slaughter in the future," Sholly says.
The 55 bull bison were isolated in double-fenced pastures in Yellowstone and regularly tested for about a year-and-a-half to two years to make sure they were brucellosis-free. They’ll stay at Fort Peck’s $600,000 quarantine facility for another year and get tested every six months to complete the final stage in the quarantine program.
The quarantine program started with Sholly’s predecessor, Dan Wenk. Fifty-two quarantined bison were intended to go to the Fort Peck Reservation, but activists released the animals in January 2018.
"People are very passionate about bison. They have different view points. There’s a lot of people who oppose shipping bison to slaughter. I’m one of them," Sholly says. "Right now we don’t have a lot of alternatives. We’re working on those things. But we felt the operation this week needed to fly under the radar a little bit until we knew the bison were up here safely."
Robbie Magnan, the director of the tribes’ Fish and Game Department, says some of the bulls that arrived today will stay with the 350 adult bison at Fort Peck. But most will be sent to other tribes, zoos and organizations after they pass through the final quarantine phase.
Magnan says hunting bison on tribal land is better than waiting for them to leave Yellowstone in winter.
"This way we can harvest them when we need them. We don’t have to do it all at one time and have too much. A lot goes to waste when you do that, and this way, a good rancher will harvest his animal when it’s nice and fat, and the way they’ve been doing it in Yellowstone is that they’re skinny and looking for more food," Mangan says.
In February, five bison bulls were sent to Fort Peck Reservation after going through a quarantine run by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) north of Gardiner, Montana. They were then sent to Wind River Reservation in Wyoming in June through a historic agreement between the Fort Peck Tribes and the Eastern Shoshone.
With the two channels through APHIS and Yellowstone, more bison can get through the quarantine program to help start or bolster bison herds around the U.S.
"Ever since the beginning they took care of us. Now, things have changed. The bison are in need of help, and as a Native American, we need to step up and help them," Mangan says.
Yellowstone plans on sending a group of female bison under quarantine to Fort Peck Reservation in about a year-and-a-half.