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Bison reach Montana as part of relocation plan

The American Bison (also known as buffalo) were taken from Yellowstone as part of an effort to repopulate the West with the iconic animals.

By Matthew BrownThe Associated Press / March 19, 2012

Bison roam in Yellowstone National Park in this file photo.

Janie Osborne/AP/File

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Sixty-four bison from Yellowstone National Park were shipped almost 500 miles to northeast Montana's Fort Peck Reservation on Monday, under a long-stalled relocation initiative meant to repopulate parts of the West with the iconic animals.

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The transfer — anticipated for months — came in the middle of a snowstorm and with no prior public announcement, as state and tribal officials sought to avoid a courtroom battle with opponents worried about bison competing with cattle for grazing space.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer described the move as a major step in efforts to restore Yellowstone's genetically-pure bison 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," Schweitzer said.

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

Caught off guard were landowners and property rights groups that opposed the relocation. They filed a request for a temporary restraining order Monday afternoon to halt the move.

Helena attorney Cory Swanson said moving the animals without public notice following years of controversy amounted to a "sneak attack."

After state district Judge John McKeon in Glasgow did not rule on the request by the close of business Monday, Swanson said he would return Tuesday with a request for the animals to be ordered back to the Yellowstone area.

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.

The trip from Yellowstone was capped by a welcoming caravan of tribal members who fell into line behind the trailers that carried the bison across the Missouri River and onto the reservation.

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Dozens of tribal members crowded the pen as the bison were unloaded in a field 25 miles north of Poplar, their camera flashes spooking several animals until officials forced back the onlookers. A drum group gathered to sing a traditional song of welcome.

"What we are seeing now is the purebreds. We are bringing them back home," said Ed Bauer, a Fort Peck tribal councilman.

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," Magnan said. "The cultural links from those genetics will be the closest to the bison of our ancestors."

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