If the genes don't fit...

The Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations could receive quarantined bison from Yellowstone National Park as early as next spring. That was the gist of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park's recommendation last week, which abandoned previous consideration of new herds on state land.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer briefly derailed the recommendation when he told the Associated Press he would not move any bison, "live or dead," anywhere. Schweitzer was in a standoff with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over an offer to supply genetically "pure" Yellowstone bison for the National Bison Range in Moiese. Schweitzer pitched the proposal to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in early November. "I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket," Schweitzer explains.

DOI turned the governor's proposal down.

Schweitzer says the explanations for the denial shifted wildly over the past month. First Schweitzer was told that the InterTribal Buffalo Council would not support the bison range relocation, an allegation refuted in a letter from the council to the governor Nov. 29. Then he was told USFWS did not consider the ungulates brucellosis-free. Schweitzer says USFWS Director Dan Ashe backed the claim by quoting USFWS scientist Tom Roffe, who later stated he personally felt the bison were clean.

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"We better dang sure have the [Department of the] Interior and [Department of] Agriculture on the same page," Schweitzer says. "Because it's explosive to have one of those federal agencies saying they're not necessarily brucellosis-free and to have Agriculture—the ones who manage brucellosis in this country—saying they're absolutely brucellosis-free."

The biggest question, Schweitzer says, came when USFWS said it was "comfortable" with the genetics of the current bison range herd. A number of those bison have cattle genes, resulting from hybridization. Genome integrity is a key argument among conservationists for the importance of the Yellowstone herd, as they exhibit no evidence of genetic contamination.

Schweitzer says the declaration could devalue Yellowstone bison. It also flies in the face of previous USFWS views on genetics, particularly in regard to wolves, he adds. "If the protectors of wildlife in the West, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, are now saying hybrids are good enough, that's pretty explosive."

USFWS spokeswoman Diane Katzenberg says, "About the only thing I can tell you is that we are open to discussing all available option with the state of Montana and Governor Schweitzer."

Early this week, USFWS shifted back to its stance that Yellowstone bison are brucellosis-free. Schweitzer then gave FWP the green light to move bison to the tribes.

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