BILLINGS — Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he will not allow any wild bison to be moved within the state because a federal agency has raised concerns about potential disease transmissions — throwing into doubt a proposal to relocate 68 of the animals from Yellowstone National Park to two American Indian reservations.
The governor said blocking such shipments is intended to ramp up pressure on the U.S. Department of Interior to accept his proposal to relocate a second group of Yellowstone bison onto the National Bison Range near Moiese. Schweitzer said that offer was rejected Thursday by Interior officials who cited concerns about brucellosis, a disease that can cause pregnant animals to miscarry.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said the buffalo are brucellosis-free. The animals have been held in quarantine for the past several years with the aim of relocating them to establish new, genetically-pure bison herds on public and tribal lands — an idea the Democratic governor strongly supports.
But Schweitzer said no bison will be moved until the disease issue is resolved.
“I’m not moving any buffalo anywhere — not into quarantine, not out of a quarantine, not to a reservation, not to slaughter, not across the road,” he said. “Nobody’s moving them, live or dead, or until we have a conclusion here.”
State officials Wednesday had announced a plan to relocate the 68 bison to Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations sometime this winter. The animals have been tested repeatedly for brucellosis and are being held in a fenced compound in Corwin Springs, under a joint state-federal program to determine if Yellowstone bison are suitable for relocation.
Another 143 Yellowstone bison that already have been through the quarantine are being held on a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner. Those are the animals that Schweitzer wanted relocated onto the 18,000-acre National Bison Range run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Not all of them would be relocated because Turner gets to keep some offspring under his arrangement with the state.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Tom Palmer said that next week’s FWP commission vote on relocating the 68 bison to the Indian reservations will go on as scheduled.
“The commission will make a decision whether or not to move any bison, but we won’t move any bison until this is all sorted out,” Palmer said.
The governor’s gambit has frustrated tribal leaders, who have been pressing for the Yellowstone bison’s relocation to their reservations for years.
“What the governor is doing is, he’s playing chess with the federal government and he’s using us as pawns,” said Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan. “It could still move forward if he just stops playing these games.”
Asked if he would change his stance if the Interior Department accepted the bison at the National Bison Range, Schweitzer replied “that would be a good start.”
The governor said that in rejecting the state’s proposal, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe cited worries over brucellosis raised by agency scientist Tom Roffe in Bozeman.
Roffe, chief of wildlife health for the agency, said in an interview he had three concerns: Yellowstone bison could expose an estimated 400 bison already at the Moiese range to other animal diseases or parasites; an ongoing study of the Yellowstone bison could be compromised if they interacted with range bison; and other states would be reluctant to take any range bison if they knew they had come into contact with Yellowstone animals.
Ryan Clarke, an epidemiologist for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the bison have been through as many as 20 tests to ensure they don’t have the disease, and the agency is requiring five years of post-relocation checks on some of the animals out of “an excess of caution.”
“Some of those cows have been tested since 2004. These bison are probably the most tested group of bison in the nation by far, ever,” Clarke said.
But Roffe said brucellosis was “not a personal concern” because of the extensive testing done.
“I know that the (quarantined) bison don’t harbor brucella,” he said, referring to the bacteria that causes the disease. “This is being painted too simply. This is not about brucellosis. This is more about the appropriate way to complete a quarantine feasibility study on brucellosis.”
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