Montana's governor said Monday he will not block the relocation of 68 bison to two American Indian reservations, saying concerns over whether the animals could harbor the disease brucellosis have been resolved.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer last week declared that no Yellowstone National Park bison could be moved within Montana. He cited mixed messages from the federal government on whether some quarantined bison had the disease, which can cause pregnancy problems for livestock.
But Schweitzer said Monday the relocations can move forward after an Interior Department researcher said he believes the animals are brucellosis-free. The governor said he will continue to block shipments of any Yellowstone bison other than the quarantined animals.
State officials plan to relocate the 68 bison to Montana's Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations sometime this winter. The animals have been held in confinement in a fenced compound in Corwin Springs for the past several years, with the aim of using them to establish new, genetically pure herds on public and tribal lands.
Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan said Monday the governor made the right decision in backing off his opposition to shipping the animals for relocation.
"I'm glad he made this decision. I hope to see the Yellowstone bison here so we can start a new herd," Magnan said.
Another 143 Yellowstone bison that already have been through the quarantine are being held on a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner. Schweitzer wants some of those animals relocated onto the 18,500-acre National Bison Range run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - an idea the government is resisting.
The disagreement reflects a sharp divide between the federal and state governments over how Yellowstone's bison should be managed. The governor in recent months has pushed for drastic changes such as hunting inside the park to relieve population pressures, while federal officials have advocated smaller steps meant to increase tolerance for the animals in Montana.
Tribal leaders had criticized the Democratic governor's earlier stance on bison shipments, saying he was using the tribes as pawns in his dispute with federal officials. They worried that could jeopardize their efforts to establish new herds using the Yellowstone animals.
Schweitzer said he would allow the quarantined bison to be moved to the reservations or elsewhere based on the comments of Tom Roffe, the Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife health chief in Bozeman. Roffe said last week he believes the park's bison are brucellosis-free.
But he also said other states might be reluctant to take the range bison if the two groups of animals had been in close contact, and that the range bison could be exposed to diseases other than brucellosis.
Roffe said Monday that he had been told to refer questions on the issue to the agency's public affairs office.
A Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman, Diane Katzenberger, said negotiations with the state over the National Bison Range were continuing.
Yellowstone biologists last week presented a plan to control the park's two bison herds through hunting outside the park, relocations and the capture and slaughter of some bison testing positive for brucellosis.
Up to 360 animals could be removed this winter under the plan, but whether the state will agree to it is uncertain.
Schweitzer wants Yellowstone to consider hunting inside the park to keep the animal's population in check. Such hunting could be limited to a buffer zone within several miles of the park's boundary during a few months each winter, the governor said.
"The park has been unrealistic in how they deal with this issue," he said. "We're not proposing that hunters be able to shoot bison by Old Faithful while tourists are watching."
Last winter, hundreds of bison were captured at the park border to prevent them from reaching Montana. Plans to ship the animals to slaughter were blocked by an executive order from Schweitzer.
State officials said there is still time to work through the disagreement before the winter migration. That typically starts in January once the snow in the park gets too deep for bison to tolerate.
Park biologists say more than 1,000 of the animals could migrate out of Yellowstone this winter seeking food at lower elevation in Montana.