After years of negotiations, five wild Yellowstone bison bulls have finally been transferred into the hands of tribal officials on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. The tribes there built a half-million-dollar quarantine facility to guarantee the bison are disease free.
The National Park Service approved the tribal quarantine program last spring, but Fort Peck wasn't able to get the bison until now because of negotiations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) program over how early in the quarantine process they could transfer the animals.
Eastern Shoshone member Jason Baldes is the tribal buffalo coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. He said it's taken years for Fort Peck to get the bison because people have trouble thinking of the species as wildlife.
"We've done pronghorn antelope re-introductions and bighorn sheep here on the [Wind River] Reservation and that's a matter of going and rounding up the animals and bringing them here and putting them in the habitat," Baldes said. "For some reason, when it comes to buffalo, we have this notion that we've got to bring them in and treat them like cows."
The tribes want to reduce the number of bison that are rounded up to be killed as they migrate out of the national park. Each year, 600-900 bison are killed because of concern they'll spread the disease brucellosis to cattle.
Baldes said Fort Peck is leading the charge to develop bison quarantine facilities but that he hopes other tribes can do so in the future, like his own on Wind River Reservation.
"We don't have to deal with the issue of crossing state boundaries. It would provide jobs for people here and, of course, buffalo are important for us culturally," he said.
The Eastern Shoshone tribe expects to receive five bison from Fort Peck as part of a tribe-to-tribe agreement this coming spring, bringing the tribe's herd size up to 28.