Tribes gain say in wild bison debate

KEYWORDS: bison debate buffalo habitat management indian tribes and buffalo brucellosis Yellowstone Buffalo restoring bison wild elk yellowstone bison herd

After a decade of knocking on the door, American Indians have been let in on formal talks that help shape the fate of the nation's last genetically pure wild herd of bison. On Wednesday, the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee agreed to give the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative a nonvoting seat on its executive committee.

While the ITBC has been involved with the GYIBC for the past 10 years, it has always been in the audience. Putting tribal representation on the executive committee is intended to give American Indians voice in the debate about resolving the brucellosis problem in the Yellowstone area.

"For us, to be involved with these animals that mean a lot to us, the bison, to be involved with their destiny …

it's really important to us," said Ervin Carlson, ITBC president and member of the Blackfeet tribal council.

Some people worried the addition of the tribes to the committee will add more procedural delays to an already sluggish committee system.

Under the agreement reached Wednesday, Carlson, as ITBC president, would become a nonvoting member of the GYIBC executive committee. Both groups agreed to the nonvoting status because ITBC does not directly manage either the wildlife or the livestock at the focus of the disease conflict in the Yellowstone area.

The shift comes in part because the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture essentially told the GYIBC last year that a way should be found to amplify the tribal voice regarding the fate of the Yellowstone buffalo.

The change is part of a larger effort to overhaul the memorandum of understanding that sets goals and membership for the GYIBC. Tribal membership will not be formally complete until a new memorandum is approved.

Many tribes are interested in restoring plains bison to their native range where possible on reservations.

Restoration is also seen by many wildlife managers as a way to reduce the size of the Yellowstone bison herd, which at 3,800 is above the target population of 3,000.

The ITBC represents 53 tribes, including both the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Perhaps more importantly for GYIBC membership, it represents all but one tribe that currently manages a bison herd or is working to develop a tribal bison herd plan, according to ITBC attorney Majel Russell.

Some tribes are likely to be a catalyst for any move toward restoring bison to its native habitat because of their spiritual affiliation with buffalo and the huge expanse of bison habitat many reservations encompass.

While restoring bison to the prairies is the main focus of the ITBC, Carlson said the group is concerned with all the native species of that habitat, including elk and the forage it takes to support those animals.

Wild elk and bison harbor brucellosis, and elk have passed the disease to bison in recent years.

Because many tribal members of the cooperative are ranchers, they share the concern of other ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Area that bison may risk spreading brucellosis. Carlson reiterated the group's commitment to protecting livestock from the disease while seeking alternatives to killing the bison as a means of controlling the disease.

"To see them alive instead of dead means a lot to us," Carlson said.

For years, bison that stray outside of the park or test positive for exposure to the disease have been slaughtered. More than 1,000 were killed in the field in 1996, sparking massive public protest. Since then, most bison have been shipped to slaughter, rather than being killed in the field.

This winter, 274 bison that left Yellowstone National Park were shipped to slaughter, while four others died or were shot in the field. Not all of those were tested for brucellosis, but many were. In a new effort to stem the disease, 114 calves and yearlings were vaccinated against brucellosis.

A major challenge blocking restoration efforts is the ability to assure ranchers and others that the bison being released into free-ranging herds are not infected with brucellosis. Efforts to develop a quarantine regimen to do that are under way. Officials plan for Yellowstone bison to be offered to interested tribal and non-tribal parties before 2010.

Keith Aune, chief of research and technical services for Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Association, is a strong proponent of reintroducing small, free-roaming herds of bison where appropriate on the prairies.

There are currently just 13 free-ranging bison herds in North America. Most, if not all of which have bred with cattle, reducing their genetic wildness.

Aune said a three-phase quarantine program is being developed with a goal of making Yellowstone bison available to start new herds elsewhere. He hopes the quarantine system, with its extensive testing, will alleviate worries that some released bison may carry the disease.

"There's a risk for everybody. We'll try to quantify that risk," Aune said. "We think we can get it to 1 in 1 billion. At some point you have to say … this is a risk, but it's worth it."

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