Washington, DC — Two bison had to be euthanized from injuries sustained in the annual roundup at the National Bison Range, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In the first year under a controversial delegation of control to a local tribe of the iconic century-old national refuge in Montana, the fall roundup was conducted for the first time using all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and a jeep rather than on horseback. Two ATVs also rolled over during the roundup and one tribal worker was injured.
Under an agreement which went into full effect in January 2009, the U.S. Interior Department transferred operation of the entire National Bison Range to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). A previous agreement for joint operation of the Bison Range with the CSKT was cancelled in late 2006 due to an array of performance-related issues on the part of the Tribe, as well as reported harassment of federal refuge employees by the CSKT.
Records obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act disclose that two bison had to be euthanatized “from broken legs” in the annual roundup this past October. One was a mature bull which had escaped from a loading chute and the other “young bull was stacked in behind the chute and when rearing caught his horns and nose a couple of times,” according to an e-mail from an agency veterinarian who concedes the roundup was not formally monitored by federal officials. Citing extensive guidance given to the CSKT, it concludes “To what degree your operation deviated from that input I cannot say.”
One persistent problem raised by CSKT staff is their unfamiliarity with and trepidation about riding horses, especially for herding bison, labeled the “the most dangerous thing we do on the refuge” by one CSKT staff member in a memo. The memo also expresses a concern about perception of “outside observers,” noting: “There are a lot of factors that come into play when making decisions about moving bison. One factor of concern is that people will accuse us of not doing our jobs, or lacking the experience to do the job (e.g. herd bison).”
“Future roundups may be even messier once the bison figure out how easy it is to tip over an ATV,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization, along with four former Bison Range managers, a former Chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System and a former Assistant Interior Secretary, as well as a refuge employee whose job was displaced, is suing to invalidate the delegation to the CSKT. “Skilled horsemanship had always been one of the hallmarks of the National Bison Range.”
A related issue is injury to the horses on the refuge. For example, shortly after purchasing four new horses for $13,824, three horses turned up lame. In addition, PEER has received reports about problems ranging from poaching to pesticide applications to proper fencing.
“The key question is whether wildlife and wild lands are at greater risk under this new arrangement,” Ruch added. “Scrutiny is needed not only for the sake of the Bison Range but also for the more than three-quarters of the entire National Wildlife Refuge System and nearly 60 National Parks, stretching from Redwood to Cape Cod National Seashore, that are also eligible for tribal delegation agreements.”