Northern Arapaho tribe seeks bison for cultural, dietary purposes
Riverton – In early February the Northern Arapaho tribe called a meeting regarding their desire to reestablish a herd of bison on the Wind River Indian Reservation for cultural, ceremonial, traditional and nutritional purposes.
Northern Arapaho Bison Manager Ken Troster, who was hired by the tribe to investigate its options with bison, said the herd would be used for traditional ceremonial uses as well as to provide meat for the diabetic on the reservation.
Although project information says the ultimate goal of the Northern Arapaho tribe is to bring back bison as free-roaming native wildlife, their present focus is to establish a herd on a 32,207-acre unit that composes six percent of the Arapaho Ranch and runs along the western edges of Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River Canyon. Although the unit is partially fenced for cattle the enclosure needs to be upgraded for bison.
“The plan right now is that we’ll lease a ranch outside of Thermopolis that’s already set up for bison for the next few years until we can build the secure fence,” said Troster of the Red Canyon Ranch, which has housed bison for the last eight years.
The bison would come from a project in Montana led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, of which project founder Keith Aune is a part. He said the Society established their interest in bison through the American Bison Society.
“Our interest is in helping people develop projects with bison through our science-based organization,” said Aune.
Currently the Society has taken bison from the herd in Yellowstone National Park and put them through brucellosis quarantine with the goal of making them available for tribes and conservation interests nationwide.
“One of our main objectives in capturing these animals was a conservation attempt aimed at genetics,” said Aune, mentioning that North American bison went through a tremendous bottleneck in their history and their gene pool remains limited. “All bison in North America come from five privately-owned source stocks and two public.”
He said there’s an emerging interest in bison from Yellowstone because they’ve maintained their pure genetics. “Many producers began blending cattle with the bison, and there are a lot of federal and state bison herds that have cattle genes,” said Aune. He said there are only five known existing herds without cattle genes.
“They’re also important because they come from one of only three known herds that are 1,000 animals or more and that operate in a natural way,” he continued. “They’re unique in environment, management situation and genetics.”
The issue of primary concern to reservation-area ranchers with the bison reintroduction is brucellosis transmission. A Montana plan 10 years in the making resulted in three options for the excess Yellowstone bison: slaughter, quarantine or research. “That’s what drives Montana to figure out what to do with the surplus from Yellowstone,” said Aune. “It took a long time to come up with a procedure for quarantine, but it was designed and built by a suite of vets, epidemiologists and experts from federal, state and private interests that sat down and constructed the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Quarantine Plan.”
A six-year study from 1995 through 2001 analyzed brucella in bison. “We found the disease in bison is very similar to cattle,” said USDA APHIS veterinarian Jack Rhyan.
“There is one scientific issue we’ve always been concerned about – latent infection, or ‘heifer syndrome’ in cattle,” said Rhyan. “In cattle a calf can be exposed to brucella and become infected without developing clinical signs. It carries the infection and its blood tests are negative, but when a heifer becomes pregnant she might abort and that’s the first time you know you’ve got brucella.”
He said the protocol addresses that and requires bison heifers to get through their first calf and remain negative. “This project is a feasibility study designed to look at two groups of 100 animals each and take them all the way through to when we put them on tribal and public lands, after which we’ll survey them for another five years,” he said.
The bison that remain in the herd today have tested negative for brucellosis anywhere from nine to 15 times, and Rhyan said they’ll all be tested once more before transport. There are currently 21 cows, 16 calves and four bulls that meet the requirements of the protocol and are qualified for movement.
Wyoming Assistant State Veterinarian Jim Logan said the Wyoming Livestock Board’s (WLSB) concern with the bison importation is not a disease issue. “We’re absolutely not going to import brucellosis-infected livestock or bison into this state. It simply wouldn’t be done,” he said.
Logan said the bison would have to be imported according to Chapter 8 Import Rules. In this case the bison will be imported as livestock, not wildlife. “The bison will have to be brucellosis vaccinated to come into Wyoming, and most of them have already been vaccinated twice,” he said.
Once they’re in the state the bison will have to abide by Chapter 2 brucellosis rules and any USDA/APHIS rules regarding the disease.
“As long as the tribe complies with WLSB and APHIS rules, we don’t have any major concern with this from a disease standpoint,” noted Logan.
“We’re being extremely cautious, and through an agreement with the bison recipient we’ll test them once more after they calve one more time and then monitor them four years after that,” said Aune.
Logan suggested the tribe sign a management and animal health agreement with the WLSB and Fremont and Hot Springs counties. “It would have to be voluntary, but the reason to do it would be public relations,” he said. “It would also be an animal health step with a plan to prevent disease and deal with it should any kind arise in the herd.”
Logan also said that, through an agreement with the Wyoming Game and Fish, the WLSB has authority to lethally remove any escaped bison, whether they come from the reservation or elsewhere. “The Game and Fish does not want wild herds of bison outside the Shoshone, Bridger-Teton or Absaroka national forests, so if they’re outside off the forest zone they’re considered livestock,” he said.
“We have an interest in working with the tribes to create opportunities for ecologically and culturally sensitive management,” said Aune of the plan. “There are a handful of places in North America where the land and interest are there to consider this kind of a venture and with the Northern Arapahos we’d be matching up their interest in having a cultural herd with the availability of Yellowstone bison.”
If all goes as planned the Northern Arapaho tribe will receive their first bison at Thermopolis this spring.
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.