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Bison conservation is complex, frustrating and slow work. Progress is measured in incremental gains and by building trust between ranchers, conservationists, tribal governments, and state and federal partners. That work was brought to an unexpected halt last week when someone illegally cut fences that held over 50 bison in their pens at the Stephens Creek Quarantine Facility.

That action set back efforts to relocate 24 bull bison to the Fort Peck Tribes for their ongoing bison restoration program, rather than to the slaughterhouse.

While there is no excuse for the vandalism of the Stephens Creek fences, this illegal action does call into question the process by which we decide which bison go to slaughter, to tribes, to public land or to other conservation herds. The incident at Stephens Creek shows that a secure, dedicated facility and an expedited process are needed to certify bison as disease-free for relocation to places working to establish new conservation herds. With any bison leaving the Greater Yellowstone Area, there is a process that is required by state and federal agencies. This is so the disease brucellosis, which can be spread between wildlife and domestic cattle, does not leave the Yellowstone area where it is currently contained.

We support both the National Park Service and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s dedication to finding the perpetrators of this unfortunate incident. We also encourage the Department of the Interior to identify ways to implement better quarantine protocols and expedite the testing and relocation of disease-free bison to willing tribal and public lands both in Montana and elsewhere. The Fort Peck tribal government has been patient and honest in their dealings with the federal government, and it’s up to the government to help restore what’s been lost by a willful act of sabotage.

By far the greatest progress over the last 20 years has been accomplished by Native Americans who have brought bison back to the Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and on other tribal lands around the West.

We’ve seen good progress in the last few years with increased tolerance for bison outside of Yellowstone National Park. Beyond a few instances of incremental progress, finding new places to put bison other than tribal ground remains elusive.

Montanans have a track record as leaders in wildlife restoration. Bison should be no different. It is time to look at increased efficiencies in moving disease-free bison to places where they can thrive, rather than simply reverting to the bullet and butcher. It is time to look at other places that make sense for bison conservation on public lands, with the appropriate safeguards for livestock producers and private property owners. It is time for both the state of Montana and the federal government to find a path forward on bison that honors tribal commitments, and state trust responsibilities to conserve native, valued species.

More than 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt catalyzed efforts to save bison from extinction and issued the first call for conserving this native species. The time is now to move forward judiciously and incorporate the best science, safeguards for private property and opportunities to increase the number of wild bison in the United States. Solving the quarantine bottleneck is a significant step in this process and is supported by the vast majority of stakeholders as we look to other ways to conserve our national mammal.

The time to move on bison conservation is now. We stand ready to help Gov. Steve Bullock and Secretary Zinke find that common-sense path forward in finishing the job that Theodore Roosevelt started.

Kathy Hadley is the chair of the board of directors for the National Wildlife Federation. She lives on a ranch in western Montana.


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