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New bison quarantine facility is opened at Yellowstone National Park



Yellowstone National Park, Montana – Last Thursday afternoon, the sound of tribal drums reverberated throughout the Gardiner Basin’s plains. The occasion was a ceremony to honor the opening of a new facility at Yellowstone National Park that will considerably increase the number of bison the park can send to Native American tribes for the establishment of tribal bison preserves across the nation and into Canada.

It was a good day, said Troy Heinert, chairman of the tribal buffalo council, in his native tongue. In English, he continued, “Today is definitely a good day.”

The new bison quarantine facility enables the testing of the animals to ensure that they are clear of brucellosis, a disease that was originally passed from cattle to bison and can result in spontaneous miscarriages in cattle.

Before being transported to a bison handling facility at the Fort Peck Reservation, the disease-free bison are first kept in isolation for over three years. Other tribes across the nation receive the bison from there.

Currently, only 50 bison are provided to the tribes annually; but, with the newly expanded cages, that number will soon be able to increase fourfold.

Reuben Carlson, a member of the Montana Blackfoot tribe, discussed the importance of sending bison to tribal communities.

“I always talk about how they wanted to get rid of buffalo and consequently get rid of Indians,” he said. “But the buffalo are still here. We’re still here and we’re still fighting to bring them back to our culture. They’re a big part of us culturally, spiritually.”

“Let’s start talking more about restoration and about healing and really everything that this program is about,” said Scott Christensen, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He said the conversation about bison needs to change from one of negative outcomes of having bison on the land to the positive virtues of bison across the country.

1,550 bison were taken out of the Yellowstone bison herd during the previous winter season. That amounts to somewhat more than 25% of the 6,000 animals that were tallied overall last fall.

According to Chris Geremia, a park bison biologist, 88 animals were killed, 200 were seized for the quarantine program, and the majority of the remaining animals were taken by state and tribal hunters.

Geremia stated that he believes hunting, as opposed to transporting bison to slaughter, is a more organic method of reining in bison that escape the park. Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park Cam Sholly, his superior, concurs.

“I fundamentally have a serious problem, as the superintendent of Yellowstone, shipping bison to slaughter,” Sholly said. “It is probably one of the most unpopular things to the American public and it’s something that we need to work together to move away from.”

With the help of $500,000 from the Park Service and another $500,000 raised by Yellowstone Forever and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Stephen’s Creek bison facility in the park was enlarged.

“Today, what you are seeing is the result of groups working together in partnership to save Yellowstone bison,” said Yellowstone Forever President and CEO Lisa Diekmann.

Interior Department Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau echoed that sentiment.

“The fact that we are where we are and the arduous and hard work it has taken to get here shows we can do hard things together,” he said. “We can rebuild. We can make amends, and we can gain acceptance. And that is truly what this moment captures.”

Reporters who were escorted into the facility faced strict limits on what could be shown in photos or video. Park officials said it was for “security reasons.” They said that several years ago someone broke into the quarantine pens and released tens of bison, breaking quarantine and setting the program back by years.

Now there is strict security, tours have been curtailed, and any video or description of the facility is kept out of the public eye.


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