Richard Peterson, Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. — 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.
They arrived Monday night greeted by a crowd of dozens of tribal members whose flashing cameras spooked some of the animals, while others charged straight into the holding pen. A yearling bison died during the trip, leaving 63, said Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan.
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, Magnan said.
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.
Fort Peck Chairman Floyd Azure responded Monday night by saying that the state has no jurisdiction now that the bison are on the reservation.
"Now that they're here, they are here to stay," Azure said.
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.
A drum group gathered to sing a traditional song of welcome as the bison were unloaded in a field 25 miles north of Poplar.
"This has deep spiritual meaning for us. They are the sole survivors from our ancestors," said Leland Spotted Bird, a Dakota tribal elder and spiritual leader.
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.
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.
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 animals.
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