The sound of tribal drums rang across the prairie of the Gardiner Basin last Thursday afternoon. It marked a ceremony to celebrate a new Yellowstone National Park facility to greatly expand the number of bison the park can ship to Native American tribes for creating tribal bison preserves across the country and into Canada.
Troy Heinert, the Chairman of the Tribal Buffalo Council, spoke in his native language to say it was a good day. He added in English: “Today is definitely a good day.”
The expanded bison quarantine facility allows the animals to be tested to make sure they are free of brucellosis, a disease originally transmitted to bison from cattle that can cause spontaneous abortions in cattle.
The disease-free bison are then held in quarantine for nearly three years before being shipped to a bison handling facility at the Fort Peck Reservation. From there the bison are shared with other tribes across the country.
So far about 50 bison a year are sent to the tribes but the newly expanded pens will allow that number to quadruple within a few years.
Montana Blackfoot tribal member Reuben Carlson talked about the significance 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.
In the previous winter season, 1,550 bison were removed from the Yellowstone bison herd. That’s slightly more than a quarter of the total of 6,000 animals counted last fall.
Park bison biologist Chris Geremia said 88 animals were sent to slaughter, about 200 were captured for the quarantine program and most of the rest were taken by state and tribal hunters.
Geremia said he sees hunting rather than shipment to slaughter as a more natural way of controlling bison that leave the park. His boss, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, agrees.
“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.”
The Stephen’s Creek bison facility in the park was expanded with the aid of $500,000 in funding from the Park Service and another $500,000 raised by Yellowstone Forever and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
“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.