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Published July 07, 2014, 04:03 PM

Yellowstone American bison might relocate to Dakotas

In the early 1800s, an estimated 40 million American bison roamed in the wild. Today, more than 500,000 remain, following decades of hunting by Native Americans and European settlers that edged bison closer to extinction.

By: Mike Hricik, Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. — In the early 1800s, an estimated 40 million American bison roamed in the wild. Today, more than 500,000 remain, following decades of hunting by Native Americans and European settlers that edged bison closer to extinction.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is taking steps to multiply the animals on public lands — targeting areas in the Dakotas to move herds from Yellowstone National Park.

A federal report mentioned North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Knife River Villages National Historic Site and Sully’s Hill National Game Preserve as potential sites for future bison transfers. South Dakota’s Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park were also listed.

“While bison are no longer threatened by extinction, substantial work remains,” the report states.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says in the report that her department is committed to restoring the bison to its former ecological and cultural place.

A new method for disease prevention will allow tribes, states, landowners, conservation groups and others to receive Yellowstone bison. That is, so long as they pledge to consistently maintain healthy populations.

About 3,500 bison live in Yellowstone, but hundreds can be infected with brucellosis at any given time, according to the park’s website.

Brucellosis is a contagious, infectious disease that can affect bison and other animals, and can be transferred to humans. Symptoms in bison include lowered fertility, uterine infections, and enlarged and arthritic joints.

In 2010, park managers began to transfer bison infected with brucellosis to quarantine areas, where they are monitored for several years.

After a sufficient period of time, a minority of the bison are considered brucellosis-free, allowing them to be transferred from quarantine.

According to the report, Yellowstone is in closest discussions with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to restore buffalo on the Badlands park’s South Unit.

Brian Kenner, the park’s chief of science and natural resources, said the state will have to approve bringing in previously diseased bison to make that goal a reality.

“Instead of containing them and shooting them, these bison can live,” Kenner says.

Bill Whitworth, resource management chief at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, says bison in both the park’s North and South units are thriving and he does not expect to accept any from Yellowstone.

“There is nothing ongoing to get that done,” Whitworth says.

In the fall, park herds will be rounded up, which happens every four to five years to keep them from becoming too unwieldy. Whitworth says Theodore Roosevelt National Park also has agreements to transfer cattle to nearby Native American tribes.

Knife River chief interpreter Chris Hansen says the report points out possible sites nationally, but does not necessarily mean that bison will be relocated at each one.

“We’re more of an archaeological resource park, rather than one more focused on wildlife,” Hansen says. “I wouldn’t expect anything in the near future.”

Wind Cave chief interpreter Tom Farrell says a recent 5,000-acre expansion to his park may foster buffalo.

But uses for the land, purchased in 2011, will move forward to a public comment period this fall. So, it may take years for other parks to take in Yellowstone bison, Farrell says.

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