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Bison today are largely treated like livestock, confined to private herds and wildlife preserves. Those that wander north out of Yellowstone are hazed back inside the park's boundaries by state agents on horseback, in helicopters and on ATVs. If the bison venture onto private property, they're shipped to a quarantine facility. Fear over the spread of brucellosis, a disease that can cause ungulate calves to be stillborn, has kept them under close scrutiny. Even the new Fort Peck herd were given ear tags.
At Fort Peck Community College, Schweitzer pounds the podium with his left hand again and again and again, mimicking the sound of the drum circle at his inauguration in 2005. The thuds continue through the first few minutes of his speech on the occasion of the return of the bison to Fort Peck. "When we took the bison, we took a part of the soul of the Indian people," he says. "Now they're back—and they're here to stay."
There are elders in the audience this morning. Tribal leaders line the front of the room, school children from Frazier line the back. They've come to celebrate the bison's return and to thank those responsible. Everyone keeps saying the same thing: "Today is a good day."
Schweitzer tells the crowd that this herd will be the starting point for pockets of genetically pure bison at other locations throughout the West. "May the bison roam free," he says. "And may we recapture the pride that existed for 400 generations before we destroyed them."
No bison truly roam free these days, not in the way elk, deer, antelope, moose and scores of other natives species do. It took years just to put this new herd in a two-acre enclosure here. Already, the tribe is being forced to build a stronger fence, one that will not only keep the bison in but the deer, elk and antelope out. They and their conservation partners, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation, have already sunk $200,000 into fences, solar-powered water tanks and other improvements to accommodate this offshoot of the Yellowstone herd. Until the fencing improvements are made, the new herd will have to remain in their small paddock.
Not everyone is thrilled to see wild bison come to Fort Peck. Cory Swanson, a Helena attorney representing landowners who are suing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks over the relocation, says their opposition was never about keeping bison away from the tribes. Ranchers last year decried similar proposals to relocate bison to state land at the Marias River and Spotted Dog wildlife management areas. "It was about sending bison all over the state with what many believe is an ill-conceived plan specifically because you want wild, free-roaming bison," Swanson says. "That's the issue."
The March 19 relocation was rushed and hushed; Swanson has called it "a sneak attack." Last December, FWP commissioners said they wanted to review any management plan before bison were moved from Yellowstone, Swanson says, adding, "That clearly didn't happen. It was signed and, boom, off we went with bison shipment."
Landowners are concerned about fence standards and brucellosis test protocol being met, Swanson says, and about bison breaking out of their pasture and wandering onto private property. They don't feel their concerns have been heard. "Had [the state] done this the right way, I don't even know if there'd be a lawsuit today," he says. "We might be supporting the tribes' right to own bison. Instead, we've been run over at every turn."
The bison that were moved from Yellowstone to Fort Peck have been tested repeatedly for brucellosis at the quarantine facility in Corwin Springs; none have tested positive. The Department of the Interior has altered its position several times in the recent past on whether the Yellowstone herds are brucellosis-free, while Schweitzer is fond of pointing out that "these bison are less likely to have brucellosis than any other animal in Montana, including my dog, Jag."
Ranchers are still upset that they're here. Swanson's plaintiffs finally saw their request for a restraining order against additional bison shipments granted March 22the same morning that four more bison left Corwin Springs for Fort Peck. The tribes have argued that the bison are now on sovereign soil, so the state can't ship any of them back.
It's hard sometimes to believe these passive animals could have caused such a stir. Yet as recently as last spring, lawmakers tried to restrict bison relocation statewide. Even Schweitzer nearly derailed this move in December, when he refused to allow any bison to be moved anywhere in the state. His announcement came in the midst of a spat with the Department of the Interior over placing some Yellowstone bison on the National Bison Range in Moiese, the same week the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commission approved the move to Fort Peck. Schweitzer backed off within days.
Circle of life
Almost everyone wants to get close to them. Out at the bison ranch, Schweitzer leans against the new enclosure and stares at the herd. "That's a big bull," he says to no one in particular. Jag, his border collie, crouches nearby, his eyes fixed on the bison, his body tensed. After a few minutes, the dog slips under the fence, into the pasture. Schweitzer quickly calls him back.