Schweitzer Halts Federal Wildlife Shipments

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Montana’s governor on Tuesday issued an executive order blocking the Interior Department from transporting fish and wildlife anywhere within the state or across state lines — raising the stakes in his ongoing tussle with federal officials over their management of wildlife.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he was concerned the federal agency’s actions have allowed animal diseases such as brucellosis and chronic wasting disease to spread across the region.

He also said he wants to halt the transfer of bison to other states from the National Bison Range. Because those bison have traces of cattle genes, the Democratic governor said the animals were “genetically impure mongrels” that should not be used for conservation purposes.

Interior officials earlier this month rebuffed a proposal from Schweitzer to relocate dozens of bison from Yellowstone National Park onto the bison range near Moiese. The agency cited worries over brucellosis despite repeated tests on the Yellowstone animals to ensure they were disease-free.

But the governor said the agency’s rejection marked only the latest in a string of confrontations he has had in recent years with federal officials over wildlife. The order will remain in place until federal officials show cooperation with Montana over wildlife, he said.

“It’s their cavalier disregard for wildlife genetics and disease,” Schweitzer said. “They don’t seem to be interested in changing their behavior.”

It was not immediately clear what effects Tuesday’s move could have.

Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher said agency officials were reviewing the order after receiving a copy of it late Tuesday.

Besides the 18,500-acre bison range, the Interior Department operates fish hatcheries, wildlife refuges, national parks and other lands and facilities in Montana. Federal hatcheries near Kalispell and Ennis combined distribute more than 1 million trout annually to stock waterways across the state — activities now presumably prohibited under Tuesday’s order.

Previously, Schweitzer has called on the federal government to stop the artificial feeding of animals at the National Elk Refuge in neighboring Wyoming. Biologists have said the practice concentrates wildlife populations and increases the chances of disease transmission.

Brucellosis — one of the two diseases cited in Schweitzer’s order — can cause infected pregnant animals to miscarry. It has been eradicated nationwide from livestock but persists in elk and bison in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological affliction found in elk and deer. Similar to mad cow disease, chronic wasting causes an animal’s body to sharply deteriorate, leading to behavioral abnormalities and eventually death.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — part of Interior — manages about 400 bison at the Moiese range in concert with bison populations at refuges in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. The agency occasionally moves animals from refuge to refuge, FWS spokeswoman Diane Katzenberger said.

“We will move bison between these isolated meta-populations to ensure genetic diversity,” Katzenberger said. “But we have no plans to move any bison within the next year.”

Besides the National Bison Range, FWS manages bison populations at Sullys Hill National Game Preserve in North Dakota, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska.

Katzenberger said the federal agency does not move any other wildlife across state lines.

Schweitzer rejected that claim and said there was a long history of the Fish and Wildlife Service transporting bighorn sheep from Montana to others states across the West.