January 8, 2010

Turner Bison Bid Draws Ire Of Opponents

Ted Turner's proposal to take 74 wild bison from Yellowstone National Park is receiving fierce opposition from critics who claim the animals are being surrendered for private profit instead of conservation.

Montana's Democratic Governor, Brian Schweitzer, had requested that Mr. Turner take the animals after Federal officials warned the bison faced slaughter unless a new home was found for them.

Mr. Turner, a longtime supporter of bison conservation, is estimated to own some 50,000 of the animals.

However, growing criticism over his latest plan has him in an uncomfortable position, as his representatives claim he cannot take the animals without being compensated.

Mr. Turner's plan involves keeping the bison for five years, and then returning them to the state.  The media mogul would be compensated by retaining 90 percent of the bison's offspring, gaining an estimated 190 animals from a herd known for its genetic purity.

During a public hearing on Thursday regarding the proposal, conservationists and a group representing scores of Indian tribes said the bison should not be privatized or commercialized.  Instead, they say, the bison belong on public or tribal lands in keeping with pledges made by federal officials over the last several years.

"You're not being true to your commitment not to commercialize these animals," the Associated Press quoted Glenn Hockett with the Gallatin Wildlife Association as saying.

The animals, which currently reside in disease quarantine just outside Yellowstone National Park, are part of a 5-year initiative to divert some park bison from the recurring slaughter the animals face.  The program is part a wider campaign to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis to cattle.

Previous attempts to relocate the quarantined animals failed.

Russell Miller with Turner Enterprises said retaining most of the animals' offspring would be required to offset the cost of keeping 74 animals for five years.

"We thought there was an emergency," the AP quoted Miller as saying after Thursday's hearing.

"We're not a philanthropy. We're trying to create a blend between conservation and commercialization."

Public comment on Turner's proposal closes on Jan 12.

Joe Maurier, Director of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks, will then make the final decision on the fate of the quarantined bison.

Montana is also considering sending 14 additional bison to Guernsey State Park in Wyoming.  Some of the Guernsey animals' offspring could be sold after five years, said Ken McDonald with Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks division.  However, that plan has gone mostly unnoticed by critics of the bison relocation effort, who have focused their opposition instead on Mr. Turner.

The decision in 2006 approving the quarantine program explicitly stated, "the bison will remain wild and noncommercial."

Critics of Mr. Turner's proposal have focused their opposition on those words and other similar statements from state and federal officials.

McDonald acknowledged the state could have developed a better plan years ago for the animals, but said little choice remains today.

The animals need to be relocated by the end of March to accommodate a second round of about 80 quarantined bison, he said.

"I know we can be criticized for, 'We should have done this 5 years ago,'" McDonald told the AP.

"Where we are today is, we've got these bison and we've got to find somewhere" to move the animals."

However, U.S. Department of Agriculture representative Ryan Clarke said that slaughter was not imminent. 

The bison have been in quarantine for years and could remain there longer if required, he said.


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