Reporting from West Yellowstone, Mont. — -- Back in the days when 30 million bison stormed and thrashed across the Great Plains, the four dozen bison quietly chomping grass on Horse Butte near here wouldn't have raised much attention.
But that was before the West got tamed.
The shrill whine of all-terrain vehicles came first, startling the cows and their spindly calves, some only a day or so old. Then came a low-swooping helicopter, driving the bison into a dead run. The animals would be driven for miles, some of them still heavy in pregnancy.
Is this any way to run a buffalo herd? Hardly anybody thinks so, yet it's the best anyone's been able to come up with to manage the yearly migration of bison out of Yellowstone National Park into lands reserved for private livestock.
As wildlife advocates push to restore new herds of wild, free-roaming buffalo across the West, they have been held back in Montana by the presence of the cattle disease brucellosis in Yellowstone bison, the only large, genetically pure, free-roaming herd remaining on its historic lands from a territory that once ranged from Canada to Mexico.
Enter billionaire Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the U.S. and, with 55,000 bison of his own, the owner of the largest private buffalo herd in the world. Under an experimental program getting underway this spring, Turner is housing a quarantined test group of 87 Yellowstone bison at his ranch near Bozeman, Mont.
The program, under sponsorship by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is an attempt to see whether a brucellosis-free stock of Yellowstone bison can be nurtured, a landmark step toward repopulating the West with truly wild buffalo — not the bison mixed with cattle genes that are typical of the many fenced herds around the country.
"In many ways, these are the first bison to come out of the park alive in 40 years," said Jeff Welsch of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which is supporting the Turner Ranch experiment.
With more than 400,000 bison in mainly fenced, commercial herds in the U.S. and Canada, there have been growing attempts to launch wild herds on public and tribal land in places like Utah, Colorado and South Dakota. But scientists say that most of these herds are too small to be truly genetically viable and that they could greatly benefit from pure Yellowstone transplants.
"What we hope to do through this quarantine study is prove that these animals can be distributed elsewhere on public lands without fear of brucellosis," Russ Miller, general manager of Turner Enterprises Inc., said Friday as he led state wildlife managers and reporters on a tour of the 12,000 acres of hilly pastureland that have been transformed into a remnant of the old prairie.
The 87 bison were culled disease-free from the Yellowstone herd more than four years ago. They will spend an additional five years locked away on Turner's ranch, after which he is free to take 75% of their offspring — possibly 188 new bison — to improve the genetics of his conservation herd of 1,000 wild bison in New Mexico.
Bison from Yellowstone's herd, currently about 3,000 animals, frequently wander west and north of the park in the early spring, looking for exposed grass at lower elevations when the park is still shrouded in snow.
Montana's Department of Livestock drives them back through hazing, and through roundup and slaughter, as happened in 2008, when 1,616 bison died.
LeeAnn Daz, a homeowner on Horse Butte, has watched as bison were herded out of her neighborhood.
"Last year, if you could have seen the little babies with the broken legs, and the little guys that were hopping along with their moms because they were too weak to keep going," she said, fighting back tears. "It's tough to watch, you know? They belong here. We don't."
But brucellosis is so widely feared that a rancher with a single confirmed case must exterminate his entire herd.
Montana's second confirmed case in 2009 caused the entire state to lose its "brucellosis-free" status, making it more difficult to market live cattle to other states and impossible to win top-quality certification in international markets.
Many ranchers in the wide, grassy valleys that branch out of Yellowstone Park say the bison herd, under the National Park Service's "natural" wildlife management policy, has grown too large and needs to be controlled.
"The Park Service up until 1967 shot both elk and bison out of primarily helicopters in the winter to keep the herds culled down to what they thought was the carrying capacity of the park. Now they're getting these huge population buildups," said Pat Povah, who runs cattle during the summer on his ranch across the river from Horse Butte.
Bill Myers, who sends his own cattle off to a ranch near Povah's for the summer, said his grandfather lost his whole herd to brucellosis in the 1950s.