Defenders in Action: Saving America's Bison

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© Tim Springer

© Tim Springer

Icons of the West, bison are as American as apple pie and the 4th of July. But with only one genetically pure wild bison herd left—the approximately 3,000-strong Yellowstone National Park herd—the future for these wild animals is in doubt. That’s why Defenders recently joined a coalition working to restore bison across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Many of Yellowstone’s bison are infected with brucellosis, a disease contracted from domestic cattle. While it doesn’t harm the bison, when passed to cattle it can cause them to abort. Also, although cattle ranchers and agriculture officials long ago eradicated brucellosis from Northern Rockies domestic cattle, ranchers resist bison on grazing land because they could lose the “brucellosis-free certification” that allows them to sell beef out of state. The result: Officials haze and slaughter bison that leave park boundaries to forage on adjacent federal lands during severe winter months when food inside the park is inadequate.

Over the last three years, though, as part of a government-sponsored research program to see if eliminating brucellosis in bison is possible, some Yellowstone bison calves have been quarantined instead of killed. Today, about 140 disease-free, genetically pure American bison live in isolation just north of the park and could be relocated to establish new herds for the benefit of Indian tribes and bison conservation. At least two Indian reservations have shown interest, and Defenders is talking with state and federal wildlife officials and the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck Reservation and the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation to bring about a bison relocation.

With help from Defenders, the Fort Peck Reservation constructed a 16-mile, wildlife-friendly fence around 5,000 acres of prime grazing lands perfect for the quarantined Yellowstone bison. The fenced-in area includes upland prairie and bottomlands along the Poplar River, once a migration corridor for large herds of bison moving south to winter in eastern Montana. The Fort Belknap Reservation has identified 22,000 acres, which Defenders has assisted in securing and is now providing seed money for fencing and other needed facilities. Defenders also successfully promoted an agreement under which Fort Peck will take all the bison initially and then give half to Fort Belknap when it is ready for them.

“We believe that once our bison restoration work with the tribes of the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations is underway on the ground, we can set an even more ambitious goal: To collaboratively restore disease-free, true American bison herds of at least a thousand animals to numerous locations across the West,” says Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders’ president.

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