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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.

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Details of the shipment were kept quiet until it was under way. Magnan said the state and tribes were trying to avoid an injunction after Swanson's clients filed a lawsuit in state district court in January seeking to block the transfer.

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Schweitzer said there was no attempt to keep the relocation under wraps, adding that the state did not finalize the agreement with the tribe until late Friday.

Prior attempts to relocate Yellowstone bison failed because of opposition from cattle producers and difficulty finding public or tribal land suitable for the bison.

State wildlife officials have said the relocation of the Yellowstone bison may help answer the question of whether the species can be successfully reintroduced to some public lands in Montana. Aggressive hunting in the 19th century wiped out the vast herds of millions of bison that once roamed freely across most of North America.

Interior Sec. Ken Salazar, who oversees most federal lands in the West, applauded Monday's transfer. Salazar has said further Yellowstone bison relocations are under consideration for public lands in Colorado, South Dakota and elsewhere.

About half of the animals heading to Fort Peck could be transferred later this year to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in central Montana. Fences for those animals have not yet been completed.

For the past several years, the animals have been confined to quarantine just north of the Yellowstone.

They were captured leaving the park during their winter migration and tested extensively to make sure they were free of brucellosis. That disease, which can cause pregnant animals to abort their young, was for many years the primary argument for preventing Yellowstone bison from roaming freely outside the park.

But critics of the relocation have lingering worries about bison competing with cattle for rangeland.

State Sen. Rick Ripley, a Wolf Creek Republican and plaintiff in the landowners' lawsuit, criticized Monday's move and said it was in defiance of a law passed last year that required officials to come up with a state-wide bison management plan before moving the animals.

"They just seem to think they are above the law," Ripley said. "They're going to have a lot of problems with damage to private property that they could have addressed prior to translocation."

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Schweitzer aide Mike Volesky said the new law requires a management plan specific to transferred bison, not a state-wide plan.

The 64 bison and their offspring will remain inside a fenced compound on the reservation, Magnan said.

The tribes already have about 200 bison in a commercial herd used for meat and hunting. A 65th bison that was scheduled to be transferred Monday recently died after getting gored by another bison, Schweitzer said.

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