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Wyoming tribes seek Yellowstone bison from Montana

Associated Press Modified: September 14, 2012 at 5:46 pm •  Published: September 14, 2012
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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — American Indians in Wyoming have petitioned the state of Montana to give their tribes a group of bison from Yellowstone National Park whose fate has been in limbo since they were relocated to Ted Turner's ranch more than two years ago.

The request comes amid a push by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to find more places suitable for bison on public and tribal lands across the West.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer also has sought new habitat for the animals, and earlier this year his office helped engineer the transfer of several dozen bison to Montana's Fort Peck Reservation.

But such efforts have run up against determined opposition from the livestock industry, drawing a lawsuit that resulted in a restraining order against moving more bison.

Leaders of Wyoming's Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes said in a resolution signed this week that bison are an important icon that the tribes can help preserve.

They asked the state of Montana to transfer an unspecified number of the approximately 170 bison held on Turner's Green Ranch near Bozeman to the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming.

Schweitzer spokeswoman Sarah Elliot said Friday no formal request had yet been received from the tribes.

The tribes also sought help from Salazar and requested a consultation with the federal government on how to achieve the tribes' goals.

Yellowstone has a burgeoning population of more than 4,200 bison that periodically spill into surrounding areas of Montana. Thousands of bison have been captured and sent to slaughter in the past two decades to avoid spreading the disease brucellosis to livestock.

The bison on Turner's ranch were spared when they were put into a government quarantine program for several years to ensure they were disease-free. Turner has agreed to take care of the animals for five years. In exchange, he gets 75 percent of their offspring, estimated at 150 animals. The media mogul already had an extensive private bison herd but wanted the Yellowstone animals for their pure genetics.

The animals had been slated to go to the Wind River Reservation several years ago but ended up on Turner's ranch when the tribes' proposal fell through.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a free-roaming heard to some extent that exists on the reservation," said Jason Baldes, a member of the Eastern Shoshone who said he's been working with government agencies and conservation groups to move the animals onto the reservation.

"There are a lot of things to work out, such as management, once we get the buffalo on the ground," Baldes added.

Bison once numbered in the tens of the millions across the West before overhunting in the late 1800s nearly drove them to extinction. Yellowstone has one of the largest remaining wild populations.

Another group of quarantined animals from the park was moved this year to northeast Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation. A lawsuit from ranchers, property rights advocates and others concerned about the spread of brucellosis and bison competing for grazing space blocked plans to move some of the animals onto a second reservation.

Schweitzer, a Democrat who has championed the cause of bison restoration to the consternation of the cattle industry, has sought to get the Green Ranch bison onto the National Bison Range in Moise.

Salazar in May asked the heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other agencies to "examine the feasibility of the relocation of (Yellowstone) bison to suitable federal or tribal lands."

His office said Friday that a draft report was under review and would be submitted to Salazar at an unspecified date.

A representative of a conservation group that has been working with the Wind River tribes said the reservation is the most suitable destination for the animals since some of the groundwork for a relocation already has been accomplished.

But Garrit Voggesser with the National Wildlife Federation said the Green Ranch bison also could be broken up and sent to more than one destination.

"If we just keep taking these steps, ultimately we'll get to the point where we have bison on a much broader landscape," said Voggesser.

The plaintiffs' attorney in the lawsuit against the state over the transfer of bison to Fort Peck said he would not oppose attempts to move animals out of state. Helena attorney Cory Swanson said such a move would be outside the scope of the lawsuit.