Ft. Belknap's relocated Yellowstone bison herd worries adjacent landowners

Sep 12, 2013

A small herd of genetically pure Yellowstone National Park bison transported to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation late last month are creating tension between the tribes and landowners adjacent to the animals’ enclosure.

Fort Belknap received them through a deal with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks after the bison wandered North of Yellowstone’s boundary and were captured. This video on the Great Falls Tribune website shows the 34 animals thundering from a horse trailer into their fenced pasture. Crowds cheered from the beds of pickup trucks.

Tribal Member Leta Calvin is less than thrilled. She and her husband run a small cow-calf operation right next to the bison pen. She worries about her livelihood.

“(When) people find out that we have the cattle here and the bison are next to them, people are gonna be less apt to buy our calves in the fall,” Calvin said.

This is due to fears of brucellosis, a disease which runs in bison and elk and can cause cattle to abort their calves. It could pretty much ruin a ranch’s business if it were found in their stock.

Ft. Belknap’s Yellowstone bison, they have been tested every year for the past six years—they do not have brucellosis. Calvin said it doesn’t matter, it’s the perception.

“People around, they’re not gonna listen to all that,” she said.

Calvin and another adjacent rancher, Mike McCabe, also fear the bison breaking out of their pasture. The tribes of Fort Belknap already have another bison herd numbering in the hundreds—bison with a small percentage of cattle genes. Landowners surrounding this other bison herd have complained for years the reservation doesn’t properly care for them. They break out, damaging private property and eating hay. McCabe thinks the same thing could happen with these genetically pure bison.

The reservation does not plan to feed them for the first year, hoping they will survive off the wild grasses already growing in their pasture.

“If they’re starving,” he said, “I can almost imagine they’re gonna try to get through there somehow.”

McCabe and Calvin both said their biggest problem is the reservation never consulted them before building the bison enclosure.

Fort Belknap tribal Fish, Wildlife and Buffalo Program Director Mark Azure disputes that. He said the reservation began building the bison fence over a year ago and landowners had plenty of chances to speak with the tribal council if they had problems. He said Calvin and McCabe never did that.

Azure argued the eight-foot-tall, woven wire fence built around the enclosure is as restrictive as any in the state. He said Fort Belknap signed documents with the state in order to receive the bison. FWP will be overseeing the reservation’s management of the animals until the spring of 2017. If the state decides the tribes aren’t taking good enough care of them, they can be taken away. Azure said Fort Belknap worked hard to get the Yellowstone bison for years.

“And we’re not just gonna stop because they’re here,” he said.

State Representative and tribal member Clarena Brockie agreed the tribes had given enough notice on where the bison enclosure was going to be built. But, she said more outreach could be done.

“I think that the tribe could meet with them and try to work out those concerns and let them know they’re gonna do everything they can to ensure that the bison remain contained in this area,” Brockie said.