When bison roam beyond Yellowstone National Park’s northern boundary around this time of year in a search of forage, one of four fates await them: They’ll be hazed back into the park, harvested by hunters, shipped to slaughter or quarantined for months or even years of brucellosis testing. For years, this has been their lot, per a complex set of agreements between the Montana Department of Livestock, the National Park Service, the InterTribal Buffalo Council and the United States Department of Agriculture designed to keep the park’s bison population below an agreed-upon number and minimize the risk of brucellosis spread from bison to livestock.

Bison that go into quarantine are held in a kind of limbo while state and federal agencies conduct several rounds of testing to determine which animals have contracted brucellosis. Space is tight at the two quarantine facilities outside of the park — combined, they can accommodate about 104 animals — so that’s where the bottleneck develops. 

Despite the fact that dozens of tribes across the country are eager to establish new wild bison herds or supplement existing herds with Yellowstone bison, hundreds of animals are shipped to slaughter each year for want of quarantine space before they can even be tested.

Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning, has introduced two proposals to the Montana Legislature that could alleviate the bottleneck that’s developed on Yellowstone’s northern border by allowing more bison to complete their quarantine on tribal land. In conjunction, House Bill 311 and House Bill 312 would lift existing requirements that wild bison receive brucellosis-free certification from the state veterinarian before traveling between two tribes or between the park and a tribe. Those measures would significantly increase quarantine capacity in the state, thereby boosting the number of wild Yellowstone bison available to build and bolster other cultural herds across the U.S. 

Bison photographed in Yellowstone National Park in January 2020. Credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

But the Legislature’s willingness to facilitate transfers and change current testing protocols remains to be seen. Historically, Republican majorities in the state Legislature have not been inclined to expand bison’s range in the state, citing concerns about the spread of brucellosis, potential for property (e.g., fence) damage and competition between bison and livestock for grass and water.

Several tribes in Montana — including the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, which currently have the state’s only other federally approved quarantine facility — have been closely tracking developments in the Legislature. The Fort Peck quarantine facility can hold about 600 bison, but it’s been operating at about 20% of capacity because it can’t accept Yellowstone bison for a final phase of assurance testing until they’ve “graduated” out of the USDA quarantine facilities near the park — the bottleneck.

If HB 311 and HB 312 pass, Yellowstone bison would be able to skip the smaller quarantine facilities outside the park and go straight to the secure 320-acre testing facility the Fort Peck Tribes built in 2014 at a cost of more than $600,000. The InterTribal Buffalo Council, a collection of 71 tribes across 19 states working on the Yellowstone bison issue, says Weatherwax’s bills will support the development and growth of wild bison herds on tribal land from Oklahoma to Alaska while continuing to protect cattle producers from the risk of brucellosis.

“HB 312 will allow the ITBC to send more buffalo to its member tribes, including most of the Montana tribes. This would be a great benefit to the tribes’ culture, food, sovereignty and economies,” ITBC President and Blackfeet Buffalo Program Director Ervin Carlson told the House Agriculture Committee during its Feb. 11 hearing on Weatherwax’s bills. He added that conducting the quarantine on the Fort Peck Reservation would not increase risk to Montana’s cattle industry or necessitate additional livestock surveillance testing.

“There is no question that Fort Peck Tribes are prepared to manage all phases of quarantine associated with brucellosis, and that the necessary protocols are in place and are always followed to the letter of all agreements with the state of Montana, USDA APHIS, and Yellowstone National Park.”

Dennis Jorgensen, bison program manager for the World Wildlife Fund’s Great Plains Program

Opponents of the measures acknowledged that current disease management protocols might be excessive, but said they’ve prevented Yellowstone bison from transferring brucellosis — a disease that can cause an animal to abort its young — to cattle. They said that’s important because it prevents most of the state’s cattle producers from incurring hefty testing fees and shields the Montana livestock industry from the multimillion-dollar financial hit that would accompany a loss of the state’s brucellosis-free classification, which temporarily happened to several Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem states, including Montana, about a decade ago.

Bill proponents counter that the current brucellosis protocols imposed by the state are at best redundant with existing federal protocols — the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service also tests the animals — and unnecessary at worst. To support their position, they point to the fact that there’s never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission between a bison and a cow in the wild, and note that elk throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are also brucellosis carriers. It’s senseless, they maintain, to focus all disease containment efforts on bison while sparing elk from similar treatment.

Montana Department of Livestock State Veterinarian Martin Zaluski confirms that the known wildlife-to-cattle transmissions in Montana have come from elk, not bison, but said he regards that as a reflection of limited exposure — proof that current brucellosis protocols for bison are working.

As Zaluski sees it, there are three potential paths out of the current management framework, which costs the state about $1.8 million annually to implement: federal and state agencies stop treating brucellosis as a regulated disease that requires such close monitoring, scientists develop a “perfect” brucellosis vaccine for livestock, or researchers find a better brucellosis vaccine and delivery method for wildlife.

“Until that happens we’re going to have to keep testing cattle and domestic bison to make sure there hasn’t been a spillover event for infected wildlife in that area,” Zaluski told Montana Free Press.

Zaluski was joined by two other bill opponents during the hearings for HB 311 and HB 312: the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation. Those groups focused their testimony on brucellosis risk and the potential financial impacts to the livestock industry.

Ten people spoke in favor of Weatherwax’s bills. Representatives from the ITBC and Montana tribes were joined by a handful of conservation organizations pressing the state to make changes to its existing management plans.

Bison on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Yellowstone bison quarantined on the Fort Peck Reservation are transferred to establish and build herds at locations across the U.S., including Wind River. Credit: Colin Ruggiero

Dennis Jorgensen, bison program manager for the World Wildlife Fund’s Great Plains Program, said the Fort Peck Tribes have “addressed every standard and achieved every milestone required of them.” As a testament to that, the ITBC coordinated the transfer of 40 wild, brucellosis-free bison from the Fort Peck facility to 16 Native nations across the U.S. for the first time last summer. The transfer was a milestone for the ITBC, which has been working toward that goal for nearly 30 years. Jorgensen said the success of that effort underscores the Fort Peck Tribes’ readiness to play a greater role in the management of Yellowstone bison, which are particularly important to tribes because of the animals’ lineage. (They’ve never been interbred with cattle and still demonstrate the wild behaviors of their free-roaming ancestors.)

“There is no question that Fort Peck Tribes are prepared to manage all phases of quarantine associated with brucellosis, and that the necessary protocols are in place and are always followed to the letter of all agreements with the state of Montana, USDA APHIS, and Yellowstone National Park,” Jorgensen said.

Whether lawmakers will agree is still in question, and it’s not lost on Weatherwax that his proposals will face significant challenges in the coming days. In his closing statement to lawmakers, Weatherwax’s face conveyed the smallest of smiles when he thanked the committee for hearing him out on “these two scary bills.” The remark draws into focus what could be the largest hurdle before the ITBC: policymakers’ comfort with the idea of rewilding bison.

As of Feb. 22, the House Agriculture Committee has not yet decided if it will kill, table or pass HB 311 and HB 312 on to the full House for a vote.

UPDATE: The House Agriculture Committee tabled House Bill 311 and House Bill 312 during its Feb. 23 meeting. With a transmittal deadline on March 3, they are unlikely to be revived during this legislative session.

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.