(Sounds of Stephens Creek Facility fade up)
Stephens Creek Worker: “OK. We’re ready for the first one”
Narrator: It’s not yet dawn when someone gives the signal. Dark figures in puffy jackets are up on a scaffold. They move into place against the pale sky. It’s quiet. Weirdly quiet for the number of people here and what’s about to happen. Everyone braces. It’s like there’s this giant, collective inhale.
(sounds of pulleys)
Narrator: At the Stephens Creek facility inside Yellowstone National Park, the staff works a system of ropes and pulleys.
(sounds of gate opening)
Narrator: A corral gate opens. And then a single bison rushes through a curved passage toward what’s called the “squeeze chute.”
(sounds of gate closing)
Narrator: The gate closes behind.
(sounds of squeeze chute)
Narrator: Inside the squeeze chute, mechanical walls close in on the animal’s flanks.
(sounds of scientists logging the animal’s I.D. number)
Narrator: His ID number is quickly logged.
(sounds of chute door opening)
Narrator: Then the chute opens. And this 3-year-old bison—a wild, American plains bison—escapes down a constricted alley in the only direction he can…
(sounds of bison running past and into the trailer)
Narrator: …and into a livestock trailer.
(sounds of loading fade)
Narrator: Many winters, hundreds of Yellowstone bison are loaded on trailers—trailers just like this one—to be slaughtered. They’re shipped to slaughter facilities to reduce the number of bison migrating outside the park and into the State of Montana. Because in the state of Montana, there is limited tolerance for wild bison on the landscape.
(sounds of truck starting)
Narrator: But these bison are not being shipped to slaughter.
(music, then sounds of truck driving away)
Narrator: These bison are going to a wide prairie on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
(music with sounds of truck fading out)
Narrator: Today on Telemetry, we’re talking about the rehoming of wild bison from Yellowstone National Park to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. That rehoming is part of a program called “Quarantine.” The program is one of the only alternatives to shipping wild bison to slaughter. And it’s history in the making.
(music fades out, field sounds fade up: Chris Geremia talking about the biting flies at Stephens Creek )
Chris Geremia: Let’s go down to the facility.
Narrator: Doctor Chris Geremia is a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone National Park. He manages Yellowstone’s bison program.
Chris Geremia: Just be careful, sometimes there are rattlesnakes.
Narrator: Chris and I are walking around the Stephens Creek facility. It’s midsummer. Weeks before any bison will go to Fort Peck. The ground is threadbare: dead grass and dirt. The flies are pretty bad today. Stephens Creek is the epicenter of bison conservation. Bison are migratory and the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park treat bison differently than other migratory wildlife. And after a court-mediated settlement, Stephens Creek was built in the late 1990s to manage bison migrating out of the park. Today, Stephens Creek is where migrating bison are captured and either shipped to slaughter or held until they can be transferred outside of the park as part of quarantine.
Narrator: Chris says the story of quarantine is a story of success. It’s the result of decades of collaboration between a legion of federal, state, and Tribal stakeholders.
Chris Geremia: There’s so many people that want us to find another solution to sending bison to slaughter. They want us to find a way to get live bison out. We’re really just trying to show people how you can do it. That we can move live bison out of Yellowstone. We can reconnect Tribes and bison, and hopefully, in the fullness of time, reconnect bison with public lands.
Narrator: But like most stories of bison conservation, Chris says it’s also shot through with complexity and compromise.
Chris Geremia: You know, I kind of see it as you're standing in Hayden Valley—which is a huge valley in the middle of the park. And you’re waist-deep in snow. And bison conservation is like postholing across that valley. You just don’t go anywhere quickly and it’s an awful lot of hard work.
Chris Geremia: Let’s go to the original sorting pen, which we call the bullpen
(sounds of walking up metal stairs)
Narrator: We climb up onto the scaffold that overlooks the facility. This is my first time up here and I’ll be honest. The view is a little...unsettling. I’m used to seeing wild bison out in the big, green valleys of the park. Rivers and trout streams running through.
Narrator: But here, I see 55 male bison. Inside an ordinary pen. (music)
Narrator: And I’m thinking: how did we get here?
(music fades under)
Rick Wallen: One hundred or more years ago many wildlife species -- most wildlife species -- were harvested to sustain the pioneering way of people exploring the west.
Narrator: That’s Rick Wallen back in 2014. Rick used to lead Yellowstone’s bison program before retiring in 2018.
Rick Wallen: And elk, deer, pronghorn, all the large animals were of very low abundance after we colonized western United States.
Narrator: But with bison, the situation was even more troubling. It’s estimated that ￼somewhere between 30 and 70 million bison roamed this land before European colonization. As settlers moved west, the extermination of the American bison began. Many saw bison as both a marketable commodity and a means to suppress the Tribes—Tribes who revered and depended on bison. And so within just a few decades, the bison were all but annihilated.
Rick Wallen: In fact, at the turn of the last century the only known wild bison were in Yellowstone National Park. There were only a couple of dozen.
Narrator: From tens of millions to a couple of dozen; A couple of dozen animals hunkered down deep in the interior of Yellowstone National Park. The only wild, free-ranging bison in the area remaining from the original great herds. It’s hard to grasp: such willful decimation. But national debate over that near-extinction of the American bison would go on to inspire one of the country’s first conservation achievements.
Rick Wallen: It was phenomenal that our forefathers had the insight to preserve Yellowstone National Park and I think they did it partly because they saw what was happening to wild bison across the country and partly to preserve the unique landscape and geological features of the landscape. So this is it. This is the location that preserved wild bison into eternity.
Narrator: In addition to the couple of dozen animals in Yellowstone, there were an estimated 300 or so bison that survived in privately-owned herds across North America. In fact, a few animals from those private herds were brought to Yellowstone to start a breeding program. And after decades of protection and restoration efforts, the number of bison in Yellowstone grew from a couple of dozen animals to a few thousand.
(music) Rick Wallen: That's a very successful program. With all of that success comes the propensity for them to wander and roam and now they want to roam well beyond the preserve we've set up here as Yellowstone National Park.
Narrator: And roaming beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park has led to one of the most complex cross-boundary wildlife issues of our time.
Narrator: Three states surround Yellowstone National Park—Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Very few bison migrate outside the park into areas of Idaho and Wyoming. Most of the bison that migrate outside Yellowstone wander into the State of Montana where there’s limited tolerance for bison.
Rick Wallen: Bison are big. They scare people. They break things. Encountering a buffalo at 70 mph isn't very comforting sight.
Narrator: But there are also fears that bison could transmit a disease called brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can cause miscarriages in animals like bison, elk, and domestic cattle. Domestic cattle introduced the disease to wildlife before the 1930s. Now wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Area—including elk and bison—can give it back to cattle.
Rick Wallen: The concern about brucellosis is that if wildlife—let me back up—In the agriculture industry once an animal tests positive it has to be removed from the herd. So it's an economic loss for the rancher.
Rick Wallen: The concern really is that the livestock industry has worked really hard for many decades to eliminate the disease in livestock. So their concern is legitimate. They've worked hard, cleaned up their industry, and they'd like to see this additional threat eliminated.
Narrator: In an effort to try to eliminate or at least mitigate conflicts between humans and bison in the State of Montana, the State and the federal government reached a court-mediated settlement on how to manage Yellowstone bison. The idea was to limit the number of bison in Yellowstone and reduce the risk of bison migrating out of the park and transmitting brucellosis to cattle.
Rick Wallen: So in order to prevent dispersal beyond our established conservation area, there are years where the agencies need to get together and develop a management strategy to cull bison. Narrator: Until Quarantine, there were really only two main options for culling—or removing—bison: Hunting outside park boundaries or shipping animals to slaughter. Hunting only removes a limited number of animals. So shipping to slaughter has been the primary method of culling wild bison. Narrator: But here’s one of the tricky things about managing bison when it comes to brucellosis. It’s elk, not bison, that have re-infected domestic cattle. Elk have reinfected cattle almost 30 times over the last several decades. And elk are not managed the same way as bison. Elk are not shipped to slaughter. In fact, elk roam free outside the boundaries of the park, where they frequently come into contact with cattle.
Narrator: Because of this, many experts argue that the risk of brucellosis transmission between bison and cattle is not a scientifically credible reason for the differential treatment of bison compared to elk. Narrator: So until there is more support for wild bison living outside of Yellowstone National Park, hundreds of Yellowstone bison will continue to be culled in many years. Some bison are removed through hunting outside the park, some undergo quarantine, and some are sent to slaughter,￼ Rick Wallen: So that is a very controversial side of bison management. Many people don't like to see the animals sent to slaughter. The National Park Service would prefer not to send the animals to slaughter. But it is a mitigation measure to allow us to have the acceptance for bison outside the park that we do have.
(Sounds of Stephens Creek fade up)
Narrator: I’m back at the Stephens Creek facility with Chris Geremia. We’re still looking out over the facility. At the 55 male bison inside their ordinary pen. At the 55 bison who are about to complete part of the quarantine process.
Chris Geremia: So quarantine is a three step process and probably the biggest challenge to quarantine is trying to figure out where and how we do these three phases.
Narrator: Chris is talking about the protocols for males. The steps for quarantine are different for males and females. But for males, the process goes like this: Phase One is a screening phase during which all animals in the group have to test negative for brucellosis during two consecutive months, which takes about 200 days. Animals that pass Phase One move on to Phase Two. In Phase Two, they must test negative two more times over the course of one year. And Phase Three is what’s called “assurance testing;” it’s kind of a fail-safe. Phase Three includes two more tests over another year. So for males, that means 200 days, plus one year, plus one year.
Chris Geremia: So when we originally built this pen, the thought was that only that first phase would happen in Yellowstone. Because we’ve never documented an animal having brucellosis after those first 200 days—that screening phase—we thought that would be sufficient. And Fort Peck would be the place where they’d undergo that Phase Two Quarantine and Phase Three Assurance Testing. We didn’t think they’d be here that long. We thought they’d be here for 200 days.
Narrator: The Tribes thought that way too. They built their facility with managing the full quarantine process in mind.
Chris Geremia: The facilities up at Fort Peck are much more capable of handling large numbers of animals than what we have here. It has all of the infrastructure, it has all of the land, and it’s much larger than any of the structures within Yellowstone National Park. It’s a great place to do quarantine. And on top of it all of the costs associated with caring for and feeding animals would not be incurred by the Federal government.
Narrator: But disease-management protocols dictate that it’s only after an animal passes Phase Two that a state veterinarian can certify it as brucellosis-free. And according to Montana state law, only brucellosis-free animals can be transported outside the designated surveillance area for brucellosis, which surrounds Yellowstone.
Chris Geremia: So we were stuck at this impasse. So I think we got to the point where maybe it makes sense to try and reach the common ground we all have and start getting operational quarantine started.
Narrator: And for now, that means Phases One and Two happen inside the designated surveillance area for brucellosis which surroundsYellowstone National Park and only Phase Three happens at Ft. Peck.
Chris Geremia: And something we’ve had to learn now is can these bison actually live in an old weed field?
(sounds of truck)
Narrator: I spend the later part of the day on a flatbed truck with Chris and a couple of the Stephens Creek wranglers.
Narrator: They fill the truck with bales of hay. Then, Chris drives around the pen in a wide arc.
(sounds of truck driving and feeding)
Narrator: The wranglers flake bales off the back of the truck. The bison file in behind to feed. They follow the contour of hay in plodding steps. Almost two years of this.
(sounds of truck driving and feeding fade out, field sounds fade up)
Chris Geremia: It keeps you up at night at times. Never at any point in my life would I envision that I would be trying to help come up with strategies for wildlife conservation that just don’t feel like wildlife conservation because it’s very complex. But I would definitely do it again in a heartbeat.
Chris Geremia: You know seeing these animals with those trailers heading north to Ft. Peck, I think that makes all the rest worthwhile. It’s gonna be a good day.
(Sounds of trailers driving into Fort Peck, Rick Wallen saying “how’s that for some space!”) Narrator: On August 19 2019, seven trailers full of bison pull in to the quarantine facility at the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. The Fort Peck reservation lies beyond a stretch of northern Montana called the Hi-Line. I’ve heard people describe it as “God’s Country,” and now I see why. Rolling hills of late-summer grass and wheat draw an endless line under a wash of blue. These bison traveled 500 miles to get here. They’re the first of that larger group of bison to be transferred to the Tribes: 55 in all.
(sounds of preparing for animal release)
Narrator: The trailers line up side-by-side.
(sounds of preparing for animal release)
Narrator: Workers unlock the trailers.
(sounds of doors opening)
Narrator: Then, one by one, they open the doors.
(sounds of bison running out of trailers and out into the pasture)
Narrator: Nineteen wild bison barrel out of the trailers and into the prairie beyond. The start of a new fate for Yellowstone bison captured at Stephens Creek.
(sounds of wind blowing in the grass, Fort Peck Tribes welcome song)
Chairman Azure: The bison that we just released out here is an awesome event.
Narrator: That’s Floyd Azure, chairman of the Fort Peck Tribes.
Chairman Azure: It’s a feeling I can’t express. I mean it's something that—I don’t know—I think you have to be Native American to understand what it is.
(sounds of wind blowing in grass)
Narrator: Chairman Azure is looking out past the fences. Past the fences at the group of bison that are noses to the ground, nibbling on bites of grass.
Chairman Azure: That’s beautiful. I mean, you don’t see anything more beautiful than that. And my ancestors seen that every day and they realized what they had. And now I understand. That’s why they were very protective of the bison. It was their everyday survival and that’s what I feel today—just that, I understand.
Narrator: Bison hold great value—cultural and spiritual value—for many Tribes. And Yellowstone bison are special because they’re seen as some of the only genetically-pure descendants of the ancestral herds that once roamed across North America. Many Tribes view the treatment of bison as a grave injustice and see the restoration of bison as a source of healing.
Chairman Azure: I want to get back to where we were back then. Where we took care of ourselves. Where we didn’t have to depend on any government or anybody. We took care of each other. We took care of nature to make sure that we had food for the next day.
(sounds of wind blowing in grass)
Chairman Azure: We’ve had a lot of ups and downs since then, we had to prove ourselves numerous times. And finally I think we got it across that we can do this and we will do this.
Narrator: Chairman Azure says that trust has been an issue among the inter-agency partners that manage quarantine, and that sometimes the Tribes have felt left out of the decision-making process.
Chairman Azure: It’s the stereotypical picture of the Native American that we can’t do anything. No we can. I mean, it’s just like anybody else: you get the right people in place you get the right attitude it gets done.
Narrator: And Chariman Azure says the Ft. Peck Tribes have the right attitude and the right people.
Robbie Magnan: Today was a very historical day, I feel
Narrator: Robbie Magnan is the director of the Ft. Peck Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department. He runs the buffalo program for the Tribes.
Robbie Magnan: Personally I feel that we accomplished something finally. We wanted to see these animals come out alive. Our whole goal is to get buffalo restored to other places in the United States.
Narrator: Once bison complete their last phase of quarantine at Fort Peck, they can be released on the reservation or go to other Tribes and organizations that want to establish conservation herds. In fact, the Ft. Peck Tribes have already transferred some of their earlier quarantine graduates to the Bronx Zoo and some to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. And the Fort Peck Tribes are actively exploring more possibilities like these with the InterTribal Buffalo Council—a coalition of 69 federally-recognized Tribes committed to restoring buffalo to Indian Country. Robbie Magnan says it’s time for Tribes to reconnect with the buffalo.
Robbie Magnan: Buffalo have always been part of Native Americans’ economy. We left the buffalo they didn’t leave us. We need to get back to the buffalo and learn from them again. To keep watching these guys keep learning from these guys is my only hope right now.
Narrator: Hope. Chairman Azure says that’s the overriding feeling here today. Hope for a future with bison. Hope for a future with more collaboration.
Chairman Azure: I hope we don’t have any more fights over this. I hope that we can work together on more projects than this.
Chairman Azure: Working together solves problems. No one is any different than anybody else. God created us all equal. The problems can be solved by working together not by separating each other.
(sound of wind in grass cross-fades with crickets)
Narrator: That night, Chris and the rest of the group from Yellowstone’s bison management office make camp outside the fenced pasture. The sky turns orange, then starry, and the crickets start to sing. Rick Wallen is there, too. He’s come to help and, not for nothing, to see the years of work before retirement bear out.
Rick Wallen: Well, you know, Yellowstone Bison for many decades have had a frightful ending when they leave the national park. The conservation of Yellowstone bison should never be about, you know, fright. They’re not a pest on the landscape.
(music) Rick Wallen: Yellowstone bison are a cultural resource and a legacy type of a species. They’re a noble, native, wildlife species on the landscape and deserve some sort of an honorable ending. And for these animals that want to migrate out of the national park they find that there’s no place for them to go. We spent a decade trying to find a place for them to go and that place right now is a trailer trip to Ft. Peck Indian Reservation. And the Tribes here at Ft. Peck honor them—more than most of the world.
Rick Wallen: So until we can find more space for wild bison in the Greater Yellowstone area, this becomes an alternative to a death trap and a shipment to slaughter and we’re happy. We’re happy to see them find tall grass and beautiful sunsets on the prairie, where their ancestors lived by the millions. May they long live a happy life.
Narrator: The next morning, we make the trip back to Yellowstone. Back to Stephens Creek. Back to get ready for two more transfers of bison. In thirty-six hours we’ve driven a thousand miles. And there are two thousand more to go.
(sounds of crickets and music fade out) (Sounds of walking at Stephens Creek fade up)
Chris Geremia: Last night when we were up at Ft. Peck, you asked me, you know, what was I thinking about seeing those first bison get released up at Ft. Peck. You know today, we’re back at Stephens Creek; here we are again (starts to laugh) at Stephens Creek. Ten years ago I never would have thought that Quarantine was a possibility. And you know, it was a compromise. Everybody had to give something to reach that goal. And each partner has to do exactly what they need to do for this to be successful. You know, we need to trust each other. We can only go as far as we can go together.
Chris Geremia: My goal with these 55 bison is to show people how to do quarantine. So we need other people to learn from what we just showed is possible. And take up doing quarantine. I think what we need to say is that we opened the door, but we also need to pass the torch on doing quarantine. And these 55 bison, they’ll be teachers to us all.
Narrator: Chris and I get in his car. He sticks the key in the ignition then takes it out. In the silence we can hear sounds of staff working at Stephens Creek. It’s only a few months until winter when culling could begin, but also the next opportunity to bring new animals into quarantine. Through the dusty windshield we can see the pen holding rest of the bison that will go to Ft. Peck. Chris looks out past the fences, past the bison, past the line of cottonwoods that marks the park boundary in the distance. It’s been a long road. But I think Chris is the kind of guy who’s OK with playing the long game.
Chris Geremia: I’ve spent a lot of time with bison in this park and I’ve seen some of the most amazing things whether it’s the natural behavior of bison or watching a young kid go out to watch bison carrying his little bison stuffed animal just so excited to see Yellowstone bison and I’ve seen some of the hardest things that I’ve had to do which is to send these animals to slaughter and I just see a place for quarantine. It can reconnect Tribes with bison it can help protect the genome of bison and it has the potential to reconnect bison with public lands.
(Sounds of truck starting and old fan belt squealing, then background dialogue: Tell me about your truck. It’s a 1997 Tacoma. How many miles? 271,000. (laughing) Maybe it’s time to replace the fanbelt…)
Narrator: As Chris and I drive back to his office, we pass under the Roosevelt Arch. It’s is a 50-foot stone arch with the inscription “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” That’s a phrase from the 1872 legislation that established Yellowstone National Park. “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” And not just some of the people. All of the people. Just that one phrase. It holds so much. How simple things might have been if Yellowstone had been established solely with the preservation of nature in mind. But it wasn’t. And that tension—that balance—between managing for our ecological values, our cultural values, and our political values is what makes our decisions so hard...and so worthwhile. Make no mistake. We have tough choices ahead. But even Theodore Roosevelt knew that nothing worth having comes easy.
(music fades out)
Bison have lived on the Yellowstone landscape for millennia, but the history of bison conservation has been fraught with challenges. In 2019, federal, state, and tribal partners came together to make history: charting a new path for this American icon and assuring a place for wild bison on the broader landscape.