BILLINGS – A deal disclosed Thursday will allow the mass slaughter of hundreds of wild bison migrating from Yellowstone National Park, while sparing 25 animals that American Indian tribes want to start new herds.
The Associated Press obtained details on the deal between Montana, the park and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It resulted from two weeks of intensive negotiations and clears a political obstacle to the park’s plan to kill up to 1,300 of Yellowstone’s 5,500 bison this winter. The terms are likely to dampen public outcry by averting slaughter for a small group of bison that was earlier earmarked by the park for conservation efforts.
Wildlife advocates fiercely oppose the periodic slaughters of Yellowstone’s world-famous bison herds. Park officials say they have little choice under a 16-year-old program intended to curb the animals’ annual migration into Montana to prevent transmitting the disease brucellosis to cattle.
Brucellosis can cause pregnant animals to abort their young. It was brought to North America by the infected livestock of early settlers but has since been eradicated nationwide except in Yellowstone-area wildlife, including bison and elk.
The 25 bison saved from slaughter will be kept for a year for disease monitoring at a federal quarantine facility just north of the park in Corwin Springs.
The spared animals will later be relocated to Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, home of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes.
Under public pressure to reduce their periodic bison slaughters, Yellowstone administrators last year proposed relocating about 40 animals captured during their migration to Fort Peck, which is already home to a small herd of park bison.
When Montana livestock officials objected to the transfer because of disease concerns, park officials said they would kill the animals. That prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to temporarily halt all slaughters in a Jan. 19 letter to Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk until a temporary home could be found for the animals.
Bullock lifted his order Thursday.
The 40 bison that the tribes wanted had tested negative for brucellosis multiple times since they were captured last winter. But because the animals potentially were exposed to diseased bison while being held in pens along the park boundary, the 15 females from the group will be slaughtered and only the males will be spared, Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said.
So far this winter, hunters have shot more than 300 bison as they left the park seeking food at lower elevations in Montana, according to state wildlife officials. Cold, snowy conditions are expected to prompt more bison to leave Yellowstone in coming days as foraging becomes more difficult.
About 400 migrating bison have been captured and are being held for shipment to slaughter. Shipments will begin as soon as the park can make arrangements, park spokeswoman Jody Lyle said.
Meat from slaughtered animals is distributed to American Indian tribes across the region.
No transmissions of brucellosis from wild bison to livestock have been recorded, according to researchers and livestock officials. That’s in part because more than 5,000 bison were killed or captured trying to leave the park since 1985.
A state-federal agreement signed in 2000 set a population goal of 3,000 bison in the park.