- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. (AP) | More than a century after Buffalo Bill and others hunted America’s wild bison to near-extinction, researchers at a compound near Yellowstone National Park have launched an ambitious restoration effort.

Inside the Corwin Springs compound, government veterinarians draw blood from the necks of young bison for disease screening and clip off pieces of ears for genetic testing. Those that pass muster become eligible for relocation outside Yellowstone, which could occur as soon as this winter on American Indian reservations in Montana.

“Our goal is to put them back on the landscape across the country, wherever state agencies and tribes can manage them appropriately,” said Jack Rhyan, a veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which operates the Corwin Springs compound with the state of Montana.

For bison advocates, the project is the first step toward their dream of thousands of wild bison again thundering across broad areas of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West. Ranchers consider it a potential nightmare filled with risks.

“The 18th century is gone. It’s not coming back,” said Jason Camp, a Montana cattle rancher who wants bison confined to Yellowstone.

Once numbering in the tens of millions in North America, bison populations plummeted in the 19th century as settlers moved West and hunted the animals for food. Later, hired guns such as Buffalo Bill Cody killed bison by the thousands, for sport and to supply hides to growing domestic and European markets.

By the 1880s, only about 500 bison were left.

To stave off extinction, Theodore Roosevelt and others looked to save the animals by concentrating them in Yellowstone National Park. This spring, there were about 2,100 wild bison in the park.

Overall, there are about 20,000 wild bison in places including the National Bison Refuge in Montana, South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park and Utah’s Henry Mountains. Another 500,000 bison in North America are being raised commercially for meat.

For ranchers, the primary concern over expanding the territory wild bison can roam is the livestock disease brucellosis. While Yellowstone offers the most genetically pure stock of bison in the world, about half the animals have brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle to abort their calves.

Even disease-free bison would pose a threat, he added, by competing with cattle for grazing land.

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