For the first time in decades, the federal government is considering moving bison captured outside Yellowstone National Park to public lands in Colorado, South Dakota and elsewhere in part to prevent an annual slaughter of the animals.
However, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Wednesday he wants the animals to remain in Montana and would block any attempt to move them.
In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told Schweitzer Tuesday his agency is looking at multiple options for moving Yellowstone bison, including to Badlands National Park on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado.
The relocations are meant in part to avoid the periodic slaughter of bison leaving the park in search of food — an annual migration that cattle ranchers say raises the chance of livestock being infected by diseased bison.
Many of Yellowstone's 3,700 bison have been exposed to the disease brucellosis, yet the animals remain prized for their pure genetics.
"I want to work with you to manage bison numbers and reduce disease prevalence in the Yellowstone herd," Salazar wrote to Schweitzer. "While the Department of Interior alone cannot resolve this issue, I am willing to look at options of moving Yellowstone bison onto other DOI properties."
After receiving the letter, Schweitzer issued an order blocking any fish and wildlife shipments by the Interior Department in Montana. The governor wants the bison to go to the National Bison Range near Moiese in western Montana.
He said he was concerned in part that the Interior Department's past actions have allowed animal diseases such as brucellosis and chronic wasting disease to spread across the region.
"These aren't Interior's bison to decide where they go. They belong to the state of Montana," Schweitzer said Wednesday. "We don't think Interior is very good in their wildlife management."
Interior officials earlier this month rebuffed a proposal from Schweitzer to relocate dozens of bison captured from Yellowstone onto the bison range. They said having Yellowstone animals on the Montana range would stigmatize the bison already there and make it harder to eventually transfer the Yellowstone animals to other states that are worried about the spread of the disease.
Salazar said in his letter that the transfer of bison to Moiese had not been ruled out, but an evaluation of such a move would not be completed during the upcoming winter season. Park biologists have predicted that more than 1,000 bison could exit the park this winter seeking food at lower elevations.
Millions of bison once roamed North America. Most of those herds were wiped out by the late 1800s, and by 1902 only about two dozen of the animals remained in Yellowstone.
After the park's herd gained new protections and gradually rebounded, Yellowstone administrators sought to keep bison numbers in check by slaughtering the animals or shipping them elsewhere, said Keith Aune a bison biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Those shipments continued into the 1960s, ending after the park adopted a policy of regulation in which bison numbers would be controlled by natural deaths.
But the park's herds soon began spilling over its border, and thousands of those migrating animals have been captured and shipped to slaughter over the past decade to guard against livestock being infected by brucellosis. The disease can cause pregnant animals to miscarry. Ranches that suffer infections are subject to lengthy quarantines.
Aune said the relocation of disease-free bison captured from Yellowstone has the potential to help the species recover in other parts of the country. And he said that can still happen if Salazar and Schweitzer can work through their differences.
"They have at this point slightly different visions, but I think with dialogue perhaps they could come to a meeting point," he said.
Schweitzer has said he will allow the state to transfer 66 Yellowstone animals to eastern Montana's Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
Another 143 Yellowstone bison are being held at a ranch near Bozeman. Those are the animals that Salazar is suggesting could be sent to federal lands elsewhere. Before being put on the Turner ranch for temporary holding, the bison spent several years in a government-run quarantine near the park to ensure they were brucellosis-free.
The quarantine compound is expected to be used beginning next year to study the effectiveness of chemical contraceptives on bison. Salazar said in his letter that he has asked the National Park Service to evaluate whether a new quarantine facility should be built.