MOIESE – While Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and federal wildlife officials have the same goal of conserving bison, that hasn’t prevented them from butting heads.
In December, the Interior Department rejected Schweitzer’s plan to move what he called “brucellosis-free, genetically pure” bison that were captured outside of Yellowstone National Park to the National Bison Range out of concern for the transmission of the disease that can cause pregnant animals to miscarry. In an effort to increase pressure on the Interior Department, Schweitzer blocked the agency from transporting fish or wildlife anywhere within the state.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar later said his agency would evaluate a proposed relocation to the National Bison Range near Moiese.
On Tuesday, Schweitzer, Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials visited the range near Moiese as part of Schweitzer’s two-day tour of potential bison relocation sites in the state.
“We’re looking at the Bison Range, if appropriate, possibly partnering with us on the bison from Yellowstone,” Schweitzer said. “It has to suit their needs, but those bison possibly could be sent here to enhance their genetics.”
The range was established in 1908 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is home to 350 to 500 bison.
Schweitzer called the Moiese bison “mongrels” in December, and said Tuesday it was simply meant to point out that bison at the range have 1 percent to 2 percent cattle genes.
No one knows when cattle genetics were mixed in with the range bison, said range manager Jeff King.
Schweitzer said it was fair to point out that the science wasn’t available to detect cattle introgression into the bison genetics.
“No one knows when it happened and no one is blaming anyone,” Schweitzer said. But he added that if the state is able to re-introduce bison to public lands in the future, “we’d better be sure they’re the native species.”
King timed a “mini-roundup” with the group’s visit. A dozen or so bison, chased by hollering horseback riders, thundered down a hillside as Schweitzer and the federal officials looked on. King said the purpose was to cull four of the animals for placement in a display pasture near the Visitor Center.
Everyone got a chuckle when the dozen bison were herded into corrals and the governor’s border collie Jag came quickly to attention and started focusing on the commotion.
“He thinks it’s time to go to work,” the governor said.
Schweitzer asked King and Bison Range biologist Amy Lisk about brucellosis testing and the fencing methods used at the bison range.
“What we’re trying to understand is the governor’s interest and make sure the governor understands how and why we manage the Bison Range,” said Gregory Siekaniec, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Whether the Yellowstone bison have value to what we’re doing is what everyone from managers to biologists to veterinarians are kicking around right now.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said the captured Yellowstone bison being proposed for relocation are brucellosis-free after being held in quarantine for several years and repeatedly tested for the disease.
Last month, just over 60 Yellowstone bison were relocated to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana. About half of those animals may be moved to the Fort Belknap reservation in north-central Montana, but fences for the animals have not been completed.
The relocation is part of an effort to avoid the periodic slaughter of bison that wander out of the park and to reintroduce the animals to lands across the West.
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