Bison at the capture facility

In this file photo, bison wait at the capture facility at Stephens Creek in Yellowstone National Park. Montana wildlife officials have approved relocation of 68 quarantined Yellowstone National Park bison to two Indian reservations.

HELENA — Montana officials on Friday approved the relocation of 68 quarantined bison from Yellowstone National Park to two Indian reservations amid intense debate over whether the animal that once populated the American West has a place on today's landscape.

The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gave its permission to move the animals once agreements are negotiated with Fort Belknap and Fort Peck tribal leaders over monitoring for disease and how to prevent the animals from escaping to neighboring land. The tribes will take ownership of the animals.

Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribal officials have long coveted the Yellowstone bison, which is one of the only existing herds that haven't mixed their genetics with cattle.

"These majestic animals have played a very significant part in the history, religion and culture of our native people on the Fort Peck reservation," said Fort Peck tribal chairman Floyd Azure. "These bison have sustained our ancestors for thousands of years and they are in need of us of returning the favor. We are here to make sure they will always be here for our children."

FWP officials have said the relocation of the genetically pure Yellowstone bison involved in the U.S. government's quarantine program may help answer the question of whether the species can be reintroduced to some public lands in Montana where they roamed free two centuries ago. Conservation groups endorsed the commission's action Friday as a step in that direction.

"Surely there must be a few areas across the Great Plains where those genetically pure bison can be restored," said Jonathan Proctor, the Rocky Mountain representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The FWP, however, has met opposition at every stage from ranchers, landowners and hunters who fear the spread of disease and damage to private property.

Neighboring ranchers are skeptical that the tribes will be able to keep the bison from escaping. Rancher Vicki Hofeldt said members of the Fort Belknap's existing herd of 500 bison caused at least $26,000 worth of damage to her land when they escaped this past year.

"I would feel a lot better about the translocation if they had a few years to be able to prove that they are capable of containing their own buffalo," Hofeldt said. "If they can prove to us as neighbors that they can take care of the ones they have, I probably would not really even have a problem with bringing the new ones in."

When the transfer will happen is unclear, and it is dependent upon the successful negotiation of agreements that set out how the tribes contain the animals and their response if any bison escape, state wildlife chief Ken McDonald said.

Azure said the Fort Peck tribes will take responsibility for any damages caused by the bison under their care.

If the 68 bison are moved before next summer, they will likely all be held in a 4,800-acre fenced area on the Fort Peck reservation that's capable of holding 190 animals.

Fort Belknap is preparing an 800-acre pasture for its share of the bison and ultimately plans to have 22,000 acres of land to hold them and their offspring. Fort Peck will transfer Fort Belknap's bison when the fenced pasture is ready, hopefully next summer, Fort Belknap Fish and Game director Mark Azure said.

The 68 bison to be transferred are now being held in a government-run quarantine center north of Yellowstone National Park. Another 143 bison that were part of the program are being held for the state on a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

The quarantine program began in 2004 and sought to determine if bison could be kept free of bacteria that cause the disease brucellosis, which causes miscarriages in some pregnant animals. Ranchers are concerned bison could spread the disease to their cattle, though wildlife officials say the quarantined animals have been repeatedly tested and are disease-free.

The bison that were sent to Turner's ranch resulted in a lawsuit challenging the legality of handing over a public resource to a private enterprise. The ruckus over the move highlighted the need for the state to have a long-term bison plan that sought to answer some pretty big questions, state wildlife chief Ken McDonald said.

"What is the role of bison as wildlife in the state? Is there a place in the landscape for bison?" McDonald said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer wants to move at least some of the animals from Turner's ranch to the 18,500-acre National Bison Range near Moiese, but the U.S. government has resisted, citing disease concerns.

That led the governor to say earlier this month that he would block any transport of wild bison in the state in an attempt press the U.S. Department of Interior to accept his proposal to relocate the larger group of Yellowstone bison.

Schweitzer later said he would not block the transfer of the 68 Yellowstone bison to the reservations.

"We're not actually finished pushing on the Department of Interior, but it's going to be a work in progress," FWP director Joe Maurier said Friday.

FWP had originally considered four possible relocation sites, including the reservations, but dropped the proposals for the Spotted Dog and Marias River wildlife management areas in southwestern and northern Montana after receiving an overwhelmingly negative response from neighbors.

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