Janie Osborne, File, Associated Press
FILE - This March 17, 2011 file photo shows bison roaming outside the gate of Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont. Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is set to make a final decision Friday Dec. 9, 2011 on whether to transfer 68 quarantined Yellowstone bison to two Indian reservations.

HELENA, Mont. — Montana officials on Friday approved the relocation of 68 quarantined bison from Yellowstone National Park to two Indian reservations amid intense debate over whether the animal that once populated the American West has a place on today's landscape.

The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission gave its permission to move the animals once agreements are negotiated with Fort Belknap and Fort Peck tribal leaders over monitoring for disease and how to prevent the animals from escaping to neighboring land. Ownership of the animals will be handed over to the tribes.

When the transfer will happen is unclear. State wildlife officials said it could happen as early as this winter.

FWP officials have said the process is a step toward finding out whether the species can be reintroduced to some public lands in Montana where they roamed free two centuries ago. The agency has met opposition at every stage from ranchers, landowners and hunters who fear the spread of disease and damage to private property.

The 68 bison are now being held in a government-run quarantine center north of Yellowstone National Park. Another 143 bison that were part of the program are being held for the state on a ranch near Bozeman owned by media mogul Ted Turner.

The quarantine program began in 2004 and sought to determine if bison could be kept free of bacteria that cause the disease brucellosis, which causes miscarriages in some pregnant animals. Ranchers are concerned bison could spread the disease to their cattle, though wildlife officials say the quarantined animals have been repeatedly tested and are disease-free.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer wants to move at least some of the animals on Turner's ranch to the 18,500-acre National Bison Range near Moiese, but the U.S. government is resisting, citing disease concerns.

That led the governor to say earlier this month that he would block any transport of wild bison in the state in an attempt press the U.S. Department of Interior to accept his proposal to relocate the second group of Yellowstone bison.

Schweitzer later said he would not block the transfer of the 68 Yellowstone bison to the reservations.

FWP had originally considered four possible relocation sites but received an overwhelmingly negative response from residents near the Spotted Dog and Marias River wildlife management areas in southwestern and northern Montana.

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Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribal officials, on the other hand, have long said they would welcome the bison and cited their historical and cultural ties to the animals.

If the 68 bison are moved before next summer, they will likely all be held in a 4,800-acre fenced area on the Fort Peck reservation that's capable of holding 150 animals.

Fort Belknap Fish and Game director Mark Azure has said his tribe has selected a 1,900-acre area for the bison, which he hopes to have fenced and ready by next summer.