- Associated Press - Monday, March 19, 2012

BILLINGS, Mont. — Sixty-four bison from Yellowstone National Park were due to arrive at northeast Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation, under a long-stalled relocation initiative meant to repopulate parts of the West with the iconic, genetically pure animals.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer described the bison transfer as a major step in efforts to bring the animals back across a larger landscape.

“This is where we’re going to establish the beachhead of genetically pure bison that will be available as their numbers grow to go to other reservations and other public lands all across the West,” Mr. Schweitzer said.

Tribal and state officials signed an agreement late Friday allowing the transfer to take place, said Robert Magnan with the Fort Peck Fish and Game Department.

For the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck, tribal leaders said the relocation offers a chance to revive their connection with an animal that historically provided food, clothing and shelter for their ancestors.

Most bison, also known as buffalo, are hybrids that have been interbred with cattle. Yellowstone’s animals are said to represent one of the world’s last remaining reservoirs of pure bison genetics.

“One of the main things we’re trying to do is preserve the genetic integrity of these animals,” Mr. Magnan said. “The cultural links from those genetics will be the closest to the bison of our ancestors.”

Details of the shipment, which was scheduled to arrive at Fort Peck on Monday, were being kept quiet until it was under way to avoid a court injunction, Mr. Magnan said. A group of northeast Montana landowners and property groups filed a lawsuit in state district court in January seeking to stop the transfer.

Several prior attempts to relocate the animals failed because of opposition from cattle producers and difficulty finding public or tribal land suitable for the bison.

State wildlife officials have said the relocation of the Yellowstone bison may help answer the question of whether the species can be reintroduced to some public lands in Montana where they once roamed freely.

About half of the animals heading to Fort Peck will possibly be relocated later this year to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in central Montana. Fences for those animals have not yet been completed.

But critics of the relocation have lingering worries about bison competing with cattle for rangeland.

State Sen. Rick Ripley, Wolf Creek Republican, a plaintiff in the landowners’ lawsuit, criticized Monday’s move and said it was in defiance of a law passed last year that required officials to come up with a statewide bison-management plan before moving the animals.

“They just seem to think they are above the law,” he said. “They’re going to have a lot of problems with damage to private property that they could have addressed prior to translocation.”

The 64 bison and their offspring will remain inside a fenced compound on the reservation and should not cause any problems for the neighbors of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, Mr. Magnan said.