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Prairie Reserve’s bison get clean bill of health, fresh start with Phillips County 

This month, American Prairie Reserve shared with the Phillips County Conservation District that, as before, our bison herd has been given a clean bill of health.

As Senior Bison Restoration Manager for American Prairie, I am one of several members of our team that’s living and working in Phillips County, supporting the day-to-day management of the bison herds that graze on our properties. The health of our herds is just as important to us as it is to our neighbors in Phillips County.

Earlier this year, an adjustment board appointed by the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation unanimously approved a new bison grazing and disease management agreement between our team and the Phillips County Conservation District. I can say first-hand that this agreement was the hard-won result of many months of constructive and respectful talks from parties who ultimately found common ground.

American Prairie was given a 10-year variance from the county’s bison grazing ordinance. In exchange, we agreed to expand our already-robust disease management program, and routinely share that information with the Conservation District board. 

Our team is dedicated to creating a refuge for wildlife and people. We want for all Montanans to have access to our state’s incredible grasslands for generations to come, while also conserving one of the world’s last prairie landscapes that can be protected on an ecosystem-scale. This includes bison, which are crucial to that ecosystem.

As of our last count, we have 810 bison in our herd. We source from herds that have been brucellosis-free for several decades. We meet or exceed all Montana Department of Livestock testing, vaccination, and quarantine requirements for every animal before it arrives on American Prairie property. 

Our team is also dedicated to being good community-members. Fulfilling the terms of this new agreement with Phillips County comes at a significant operational cost to us, but it’s important to us that our neighbors’ concerns are heard. 

In January, as soon as the agreement was finalized, a group of several employees and volunteers immediately got to work to implement the expanded disease testing requirements. We moved 136 animals through a carefully-designed series of corrals and chutes. Of that total, 97 bison were disease tested, 42 hair samples were taken for DNA testing, 94 LORa GPS Tags were deployed, and three GPS tracking collars were deployed. We were very glad to have more than 20 people from the community and Conservation District join us to observe the handling.

The results determined that all 97 bison are negative for brucellosis, Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), and Johne’s disease. The bison samples carried antibodies for the less-significant diseases Bluetongue, Parainfluenza 3 (PI-3) and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD).

According to the veterinarian that conducted the examinations, these diseases are prevalent or endemic in livestock and wildlife across Montana, and exposure was not a surprise or a concern. The bison were all examined in January, and again in mid-February, and both times there was no evidence of clinical disease found.

We shared this information with the Phillips County Conservation District in early March, as we will every time we complete additional disease testing in the future under the agreement.

On that note, if anyone has any questions about these results, or our agreement with Phillips County, our team is here to answer them. Please reach out at scott@americanprairie.org. 

Scott Heidebrink is the Senior Bison Restoration Manager for American Prairie Reserve.