State considers Yellowstone bison in Guernsey park
Guernsey – “It’s a political issue, but someone, someplace has to be willing to make it work.”
That was Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan’s conclusion to a meeting held in Guernsey Dec. 5 to discuss the placement of quarantined, brucellosis-free Yellowstone National Park bison in Guernsey State Park.
A crowd of local ranchers filled the room reserved for the evening meeting, which focused on the same bison considered a year ago for importation to the Wind River Indian Reservation. Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources (State Parks) has proposed 14 of the animals – three bulls and 11 females – be placed on an enclosed 1,200 acres at the undeveloped north end of the state park, on a peninsula across from the historic castle, near the north entrance.
State Parks would like to import the bison to add to the wildlife viewshed of the park and help preserve the animals, while the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) would like to see a herd of brucellosis-free Yellowstone bison established outside the park to assist in the eradication of brucellosis in the wildlife of the national park.
“The argument that the Yellowstone bison are ‘genetically pure,’ although not completely accurate, is what the environmental community has used to stop any management of brucellosis in bison in the park,” said WLSB Director Jim Schwartz.
The theory of the WLSB and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is that if herds with identical genetics are established outside the national park, that would allow more flexibility in brucellosis management on the infected bison still within the park.
APHIS veterinarian Jack Rhyan, who’s overseen the quarantine of the brucellosis-free herd in Montana, explained the genetic purity concept came about because, while the original bison in Yellowstone were supplemented from four source herds ranging from Manitoba, Canada to Texas, they are the only herd of bison without cattle genes. Most bison have genetics left over from when cattle producers tried a hybrid cross to combine the hardiness of bison and the beef quality of cattle.
“They look, act and taste like bison, but occasionally you’ll get a white-faced calf that’s a throwback to the cattle genetics,” said Rhyan.
The quarantine facility Ryan manages just north of the park in Montana originated in 2005. Of the animals that would be imported to Wyoming, three are from the original group of 100 calves removed from the park. Those older animals have been tested for brucellosis over 15 times, and will have calved twice to avoid the heifer syndrome that crops up when bison or cattle are exposed to brucellosis as calves but fail to show any antibodies to the disease until they’re stressed or until pregnancy, when they abort in the third trimester.
“These bison are far and away over protocol,” said Rhyan.
Assistant State Veterinarian Walt Cook added that the bison would be imported as livestock, not wildlife – a status that gives more control over testing, vaccination and containment methods.
Should the bison be imported to Guernsey State Park existing park staff would manage them, including Park Superintendent Todd Stevenson, who previously managed the bison herd at Thermopolis. Although fencing requirements call for a five-foot fence, the park would install six-foot fencing. Six-foot woven wire with an interior electric fence would be installed along the park boundary, which adjoins a ranch on the other side, while six-strand barbed wire lined with electric would be used along the edges of the peninsula, along the water’s edge. Several cross fences would divide the large pasture.
When addressing escapes, both Rhyan and Stevenson agreed that, in their experience with bison, when the animals escape they don’t roam far and are generally found waiting to be let back into their facility.
Although permanent working facilities would be installed in the future, State Parks said for the next four years APHIS would provide the facilities because they are responsible for annual brucellosis testing through that time.
When discussing the bison importation, members of the audience, including Representative Matt Teeters, brought up the possibility of restocking Hot Springs and Bear River state parks – sites that already have bison facilities – with the Yellowstone bison instead of establishing another facility. Although State Parks expressed reluctance to liquidate the herds already there, they said it was a possibility. The Yellowstone bison can’t be added to the animals already there because regulations require they be kept separate from other bison or cattle.
The audience also requested cost estimates of the fence and care of the herd from State Parks, which they did not have on hand. They did say the initial fencing is estimated at $100,000, although they indicated USDA could contribute part of that cost. The audience stated that, at a time when state budgets are being cut, perhaps installing a new bison facility at this time is not wise.
However, Senator John Hines pointed out that Wyoming has already spent between $8 and $9 million on brucellosis treatment and eradication efforts.
“After being on the Governor’s brucellosis task force, I’ve come to the realization that it’s up to us to get something done,” said Hines of using the Guernsey Park as a starting point in cleaning up the Yellowstone bison herd. “If we don’t start something, we’re guaranteed to still have outbreaks every few years forever. I have some of the same concerns as the area landowners, but the way I look at it, the brucellosis problem affects us in the eastern part of the state too. It’s a wildlife problem right now, but the next step it comes to is those of us who are Wyoming cattle owners.”
Hines encouraged the audience to give it a try. “It may not work, but we need to start somewhere or we’ll have these same discussions 20 years from now.”
“As long as we have brucellosis in wildlife, this state’s at risk,” added Cook. “This is a baby step, but it’s finally doing something.”
“As long as things stay as they are, nothing moves,” said Rhyan.
Logan pointed out that Wyoming is the only one that will do anything about the brucellosis-infected wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, and that nobody else will volunteer to clear it up for the state.
Teeters expressed his opinion that a goal of completely clearing up brucellosis in wildlife is impossible, to which Rhyan responded that at one time one in every eight herds in the U.S. was infected.
The Request for Proposal (RFP) on the project is all that has been completed by State Parks to date. At least one more public meeting will be held to review the Environmental Assessment that must be completed to place bison in the park.
Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.