BILLINGS - About 150 bison from Yellowstone National Park would be relocated onto state or tribal lands in Montana under a proposal announced Thursday as part of a long-stalled effort to establish new herds of the burly animals.
After spending years in a government quarantine, the bison are disease-free and ready to move once the relocation is approved and fences are built, said Ron Aasheim with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
About $2 million would need to be spent on fencing for the two state-owned properties under consideration.
Some Montana lawmakers tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to squash the relocation because of worries that the animals could transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle and crowd livestock off of pasture land prompted some Montana lawmakers.
Wildlife officials are offering four potential relocation sites: the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian reservations in northeast Montana and two state-run wildlife management areas in central and southwestern Montana, Spotted Dog near Avon and Marias River near Shelby.
All the animals have been tested for brucellosis multiple times. Those tests would continue once they were relocated.
A fish and game warden for the combined Sioux and Assiniboine tribes on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation said fences already were in place around 4,800 acres of pasture set aside for the Yellowstone bison, which are prized for their pure genetics.
"We've been ready since last June," warden Robert Magnum said.
The animals would be kept at the relocation sites until a statewide bison conservation plan is completed. Officials said that plan is expected to be done by 2015.
But the head of a Powell County livestock group said Thursday that the state was not considering the potential consequences of the bison relocation.
Brian Quigley with Rocky Mountain Stockgrowers Association said the animals could easily escape their fenced enclosures and damage agricultural lands.
"We can't tolerate a free, wild-roaming buffalo," said Quigley, whose ranch is seven miles from the Spotted Dog site. "It's not like elk and deer. They'll be devastating to fencing, crop land, hay meadows, alfalfa fields."
Quigley added that he remained wary of the claim that the animals are disease-free. He said the state needed to guard against a latent infection that could show up after the animals were moved.
Earlier efforts to place the bison on tribal land fell through, and many of the quarantined bison were transferred to a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner.
Turner will get to keep some of the animals' offspring as compensation for holding the bison, a deal that stirred criticism among some wildlife advocates.
But Jonathan Proctor with Defenders of Wildlife said the arrangement allowed the relocation program to continue when its future had been in doubt. He said it was now time for the state to follow through and take the next step.
"We're not going to have bison roaming across the plains like we once did," Proctor said. "But the Great Plains cover 400 million acres; surely we could find a few small areas where we could restore this iconic species."
Aasheim said wildlife commissioners are expected to vote on the relocation proposal on Nov. 13. Public meetings to discuss the proposals are set for Oct. 5 in Deer Lodge and Oct. 6 in Shelby. Another meeting on Montana's Hi-line is planned, but the time and location have not been set.