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Bison are pictured above at the National Bison Range, northwest of Missoula.

Independent Record file photo

MOIESE — The annual roundup at the National Bison Range has been postponed due to tinder dry conditions and weeks of smoke that have pushed back maintenance necessary for the event to be safe.

The roundup — which can attract thousands of students and other onlookers — was scheduled to be held Oct. 2 and 3.

“With all the resources stretched so thin, especially here in western Montana with all the fires, the last thing I want to do is add to it by starting a fire here on the Bison Range,” said National Bison Range Manager Jeff King. “That’s the reason I went ahead and canceled it.”

If the promised rains do materialize over the next week, King said he would revisit his decision and potentially hold the roundup later.

“I’ve never seen it this dry,” King said. “I came here in 2008 and I’ve talked to folks who have been here a lot longer. We’re dry. It’s just too hazardous right now to even be out there. … I think this is the longest we’ve gone into the month of September without any measurable precipitation.”

The range is dry enough that King worried that a spark from a horseshoe striking a rock or a hot engine from an ATV could start a fire.

Typically in the months leading up the roundup, range employees and volunteers spend a good deal of time repairing fences and performing other maintenance to ensure the safety of both bison and the dozens of people who work with the animals.

This year, King said smoke from wildfires on all sides of the game range has created air quality conditions classified as Hazardous.

“I’m real concerned with putting staff out there doing strenuous work in unhealthy air conditions,” he said. “If we can get some rain where we can get out there to do all the pre-roundup work, I might still try to do a roundup.”

In a typical year, King said the window for getting the roundup accomplished is relatively narrow.

“When you wait too long, I’ve run into the opposite where I’ve had snow on the ground and it makes it harder to ride and gather the herd,” he said. “We’re still hoping to get something done this year, but we’re waiting on a shift in this weather pattern.”

King said if the weather allows him to schedule a roundup a little later in the year, the public will be invited, but there won’t be any of the other educational activities that typically accompany the event.

“It’s a pretty big event,” King said. “It’s mostly third- and fourth-graders from around the Mission Valley. … They are coming to see the bison roundup, but we also provide some environmental education and interpretation-type activities. In two days, we’ll get anywhere between 1,500 to 2,000 third- and fourth-graders.”

The focus of the annual roundup is to check the health of the herd, which includes placing a microchip behind the left ear on all of the new calves. That allows managers to use a reader that’s waved behind the left ear to identify the animal and track its health through its lifetime on the Bison Range.

About 10 percent of the herd of 450 to 500 bison is run through specially modified squeeze chutes. Biologists take blood samples to check for pathogens, and perform a visual health inspection. All of the animals are weighed each year.

“We don’t vaccinate,” King said. “We treat them as close to the wild as possible. We just do a general health check.”

To make the roundup go smoothly, King brings in experienced folks from other refuges, and volunteers.

“It’s not just anybody that you can put in there when sorting bison to ensure there are no injuries caused during the roundup,” he said.

Between FWS employees and volunteers, King said it takes between 30 and 40 people to pull it off.

The range covers about 29 square miles on the Flathead Indian Reservation.