It is encouraging to have people across our Nation and around the world who are so fascinated with the American bison. I have been in private veterinary practice for over 50 years and have always held special appreciation and respect for the unique and valuable North American buffalo. Yellowstone National Park is only a few hours away from where I live and work. Yellowstone is so special because that’s the place where 23 wild buffalo survived in a remote area of Pelican Valley. These bison are also special because they were always forever wild and never experienced captivity by humans.
Now in Yellowstone, the descendants of these unique animals along with a few later additions have grown into a herd of well over four thousand individuals. However, there have been problems along the way and livestock disease is one of the primary concerns. At the turn of the last century, domestic beef and dairy cattle infected our healthy Yellowstone Park wildlife including bison and elk with an exotic livestock disease called brucellosis.
Because of this disease, bison population control by capture and shipment to slaughter has been deemed necessary. Capture and slaughter is not a respectful process for wild Yellowstone bison to endure.
The Yellowstone Bison Conservation and Transfer Program was recently developed and implemented as a valid alternative to capture and slaughter. This three-phase process identifies brucellosis-free animals through quarantine in a facility located near the northern Park boundary. Once certified brucellosis-free, they are transferred for the last phase to the tribal facility for final assurance testing prior to distribution. This process saves buffalo lives and provides them a lifelong future home on tribal or other select public lands.
Last September as a veterinarian, I was fortunate to participate in health inspections and disease certification for “buffalo graduates” of this new transfer program. We inspected and certified 40 animals at the Fort Peck Bison Phase 3 Assurance Testing facility north of Poplar, Montana.
We all worked as a team and ultimately distributed the qualified animals to 16 InterTribal Buffalo Council member tribes across 9 states. One group of bison got to fly by FedEx jet to Anchorage, Alaska. Once there, they boarded a landing craft and ultimately were off-loaded on a beach to join an existing tribal herd on a remote island near Kodiak!
Seeing these Yellowstone animals live and knowing they will contribute valuable genetics to various tribal herds across the United States was a very enriching experience. Enjoying the work, the fun, and sharing the goodwill with all the people of our team was totally unforgettable. Following up later with the various tribal herd caregivers to find out how the transfers adapted to their new homes was also quite rewarding. I loved this job and want to see it expand in future years.
Finally, I want to express thoughts for the present and for the future homes of some of these buffalo. First and foremost, bison deserve to be considered and cared for respectfully as the wild animals they most certainly are. With the exception of those in the Yellowstone backcountry, our North American buffalo were saved from extinction by caring people on ranches. Today, most bison are owned privately and considered commercial animals that live within fenced pastures on relatively small landscapes. Bison are survivors and can adapt to small pastures. However, not all bison should have to live this way! We do have publicly owned conservation buffalo herds but most are smaller numbers with a limited land base.
Someday somewhere on the Great Plains of North America, we must provide a proper home for this essential “prairie landscape engineer.” This special critter we now honor as our United States National Mammal. The home will have to be a huge place on federal public lands, probably outside of reservation boundaries. We can share the stewardship of this animal and its environment with a coalition of tribes providing leadership. We can also include as caregivers other non-indigenous people from diverse backgrounds. People who care enough to become involved with and to appreciate the health and the quality of our native prairie landscape. A large, living natural landscape that could become an important part of our shared national public land heritage.
“Doc” Don Woerner, DVM
For almost 60 years Doc and his family have lived, created a business, and raised a family in a semi-rural setting of the Yellowstone River valley of central Montana. His career has included private veterinary practice at the family business entitled Laurel East Animal Center. The Center still provides many services for livestock, companion animals and wildlife. Doc’s favorite wild animal is the North American buffalo or bison, our proud United States National Mammal.
Doc Woerner earned a BS degree in Biological Sciences and a DVM degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Doc and his wife Bobbie met while at the university. Bobbie was raised on a cattle ranch in northwestern Wyoming.
Doc is enthusiastically working on a post-retirement career with a new enterprise called the American Bison Resource and Education Center. This new endeavor is located west of Billings near ZooMontana. Associated with the Center is a “museum on wheels” called the Field Museum of the American Buffalo. Doc also assists with the Yellowstone National Park bison Quarantine, Conservation and Transfer Program which identifies and finds new prairie homes for surplus healthy certified brucellosis-free, wild bison on native tribal lands.