Yellowstone bison conservation program in limbo

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) 12-09

An effort to divert some Yellowstone National Park bison from government-sponsored slaughter is in limbo after the program’s permit expired and criticism emerged over moving some of the animals onto media mogul Ted Turner’s private ranch.

Since 2005, about 200 bison that would otherwise have been captured and slaughtered were diverted into a pilot conservation and research program run by the state and federal governments. The intent was to test the animals for disease and then ship them out to start new herds on public or tribal lands.

But after finding a home for the animals proved problematic, officials said that no more bison would be diverted for the foreseeable future.

“We have put that on hold,” Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said.

That means if Yellowstone’s bison push outside the park in heavy numbers this winter, there will be few options but slaughter.

The permit that allowed for the collection of the bison from Yellowstone recently expired. Park spokesman Al Nash said there has been no request to renew the permit, which was held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Animals brought into the program since 2005 remain at a quarantine compound north of Yellowstone jointly run by Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the USDA.

The facility was never meant to be long-term, but officials involved with its operation had previously said they expected it to continue in some fashion after the permit expired. A USDA spokeswoman said the agency never committed to operating the program beyond the first few years.

Half the animals were killed soon after their arrival to test for the disease brucellosis. Its prevalence in bison is the motivation behind the government’s slaughter program, which is meant to guard against transmissions of the disease to cattle on ranches outside the park.

The remaining animals – plus their offspring – were to be used to start up new herds.

After the first effort to relocate the bison fell through, the state recently proposed putting the animals on Turner’s ranch south of Bozeman for the next five years. But Turner wants to keep 90 percent of the animals’ offspring, stirring opposition from conservation groups that say the move would privatize public wildlife.

A meeting on the Turner proposal is planned for Jan. 7 in Bozeman.

“We’re taking small steps now,” Aasheim said.

Keith Aune is a former state biologist who helped set up the quarantine program before taking a job with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

He said its original goals were complicated after members of the state’s ranching industry signaled their opposition.

“My gut standpoint is this is not going to happen again for quite some time,” he said. “There’s some pushback. We knew there would be, but we didn’t know how much.”