Montana lawmakers hold hearing on bills that would make bison transfers to tribes easier

Posted at 11:58 PM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-12 11:09:45-05

HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on a pair of bills aimed at making it easier to transfer wild bison onto tribal lands.

The House Agriculture Committee held hearings on House Bill 311 and 312, both sponsored by Democratic Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr. of Browning.

HB 311 would allow bison to be transferred to an Indian reservation from a national park or another reservation without a health certificate from the state. Supporters said that would remove a regulatory burden on tribes seeking to bring in bison.

Most of Montana’s eight tribal nations have been developing their own bison herds – for cultural and traditional reasons, for economic development and as a source of food for their members. Leaders said, because of the small sizes of those herds, they need to regularly bring in new animals to improve genetic diversity and keep the herds healthy.

HB 312 is intended to increase the number of bison transferred from the area around Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Reservation. It would remove the requirement that the Montana state veterinarian certify wild Yellowstone bison as free from the disease brucellosis before they can be transferred, as long as they are sent to a quarantine facility on tribal land.

Currently, bison are rounded up in the park and sent to quarantine facilities near Gardiner, where they are regularly checked for brucellosis. After a lengthy quarantine that can last a year or longer, animals that are certified disease-free can be sent to Fort Peck, where the tribes built their own quarantine facility. There, the bison spend another year isolated before they can be transferred to other herds.

Supporters of HB 312 said the Fort Peck facility could handle many more bison than it is currently receiving, but there’s not enough room at the Gardiner facilities to quarantine more there. They argued sending bison to Fort Peck earlier in the quarantine process would clear up that backlog and reduce the number of Yellowstone bison that the National Park Service sends to slaughter to prevent overpopulation.

Majel Russell, an attorney for the Fort Peck Tribes and the Intertribal Buffalo Council, said the tribe’s quarantine facility is sufficiently remote and has enough security that it should be able to hold bison safely until they are fully cleared.

“The risk has been very remote; we have not been able to effectively test that because of all of this regulation,” said Russell.

However, both bills drew opposition from ranchers and from the state veterinarian, who argued there shouldn’t be a change in the current procedure for managing brucellosis.

Brucellosis can cause stillbirths, infertility and other health issues for cattle. The disease is prevalent among wild bison and elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. While there haven’t been documented cases of wild bison spreading brucellosis to cattle, ranchers remain concerned about any move that could increase the risk.

Currently, Montana has a designated surveillance area – including much of Park, Gallatin and Madison Counties as well as parts of Beaverhead County – where cattle must undergo additional testing for brucellosis. Advocates like the Montana Stockgrowers Association said Thursday that, if the disease spreads beyond that area, it will have a devastating financial impact – making it more difficult for livestock producers to find markets and forcing the state to expand its surveillance efforts.

Dr. Marty Zaluski, the state veterinarian, said he wasn’t concerned about the quality of the Fort Peck facility, but its location. He said if a potentially infected bison was to get loose there, it would have a much greater impact than if one got loose in an area where brucellosis is already endemic.

“Not only is the chance of undetected transmission greater, but the financial impact is also significantly greater, because currently we don’t conduct testing in that area,” Zaluski said.

Earlier this month, 50 bison were transferred from the Yellowstone area to Fort Peck after completing their initial quarantine. This was the fifth relocation since 2019, moving a total of 154 bison. Fort Peck leaders said their facility can handle up to 600 bison.

The committee took no immediate action on HB 311 or HB 312.