Montana officials decide against relocating scores of Yellowstone bison across nation

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HELENA, Montana — Montana wildlife officials decided Thursday against shipping 145 bison captured from Yellowstone National Park to the Bronx zoo and other locations across the nation, choosing to send them to an American Indian reservation within the state.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to transfer the bison to Fort Peck Indian Reservation instead of following a recommendation to divide the animals among the reservation, a New York-based wildlife consortium, Oklahoma's Cherokee Nation and the state of Utah. The bison are now being held on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner under a five-year agreement that comes to an end next month, adding urgency to finding them a new home.

Commissioners said they are confident in the Fort Peck tribes' ability to manage the bison after successfully handling the one previous relocation of 63 Yellowstone bison in 2012. Commissioners also wanted to keep the animals in the state in anticipation of a Montana bison conservation plan to be completed next year.

Commissioner Larry Wetsit, a Fort Peck tribal member, said he is certain the tribes will work with the other groups interested in the bison.

"It's always been the intent of the tribe to re-establish buffalo somewhere," Wetsit said. "It's always been our goal, and we will always work with others to ensure that does happen."

An environmental analysis of the relocation proposal is pending. Thursday's vote is conditional on the completion of that analysis.

Yellowstone bison are considered extremely valuable because they are one of the few wild herds left that have no cattle genes. These 145 bison were captured a decade ago under an experimental program to start new herds using the genetically pure Yellowstone animals.

They spent years in quarantine to make sure they weren't carrying the disease brucellosis, which has caused problems for the cattle industry.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency's recommendations would have given the Wildlife Conservation Society 10 bison for zoos in the Bronx, Queens and Ohio. That recommendation was in recognition of the Bronx zoo being the founder of the American Bison Society, Montana Wildlife Division Administrator Ken McDonald said.

The society was instrumental in conserving the last bison before they were wiped out in North America.

The state agency recommended only 70 of the bison go to Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation, with 35 to Oklahoma's Cherokee Nation and the remaining 30 to Utah's Division of Wildlife.

A fifth applicant, the private American Prairie wildlife reserve in north-central Montana, was dropped from consideration after wildlife officials said they wouldn't relocate bison to nontribal lands in the state until the bison conservation plan is completed.

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