BILLINGS – Ten entities have offered to take a group of about 135 bison from Yellowstone National Park that went through an experimental program to establish new herds of the animals, Montana state officials said Monday.
Applications came in from state wildlife agencies in Utah and Minnesota, three American Indian tribes and five private groups in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and New York.
The animals have been held for the past several years on behalf of the state at a Bozeman-area ranch owned by philanthropist Ted Turner.
They were captured from the park in 2005 and 2006, put into quarantine and tested repeatedly to make sure they don’t have the disease brucellosis. Backers hoped they would serve as seed stock for new herds of bison and promote the conservation of the species driven to near-extinction in the late 1800s.
Unlike most of the half-million bison in the U.S. that are in commercial herds, Yellowstone’s wild bison are considered genetically pure.
Prior attempts to move the quarantined animals onto public lands in Montana were abandoned in the face of determined opposition from ranchers and property rights advocates concerned about property damage, disease and competition for grazing land.
Another group of bison that went through the program were transferred to Montana’s Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes in 2012. Opponents challenged the move unsuccessfully in state court.
Whether the next relocation is challenged depends in part on where the animals would go, said Rep. Kerry White, a Republican state lawmaker from Bozeman who has been critical of bison relocation efforts.
“There’s a lot of concerned property owners,” White said.
Under a deal hatched by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Turner gets to keep 75 percent of the animals’ offspring in exchange for the care he provided over the past several years. That’s expected to be more than 150 bison after spring calving.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wants to pass the remaining animals over to public agencies or organizations interested in starting “conservation herds.”
Over the next several weeks, a panel of state, tribal and federal officials will review the proposals before recommending one or more applicants for approval.
Spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency hopes to relocate the bison by the end of November. A public comment period will be scheduled to give interested parties a chance to weigh in before a final decision is made, he said.
Most of the entities that applied to take the animals are looking to augment existing herds.
Along with the state wildlife agencies, the applicants include the tribes of Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation; the Quapaw and Cherokee tribes of Oklahoma; the Platte River Whooping Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska; Tutuaca Mountain Center in Crawford, Nebraska; the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Yampa Valley Bison in northwest Colorado and the American Prairie Foundation in Sun Prairie, Montana.