Greener pastures

Frustration was palpable on Montana's Fort Peck Reservation earlier this year. Dozens of Yellowstone bison were quarantined near Gardiner—bison that the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes have hoped to obtain for nearly a decade. Public pressure over possible brucellosis exposure prompted officials to consider slaughtering the animals. Only a temporary stay of execution from Gov. Brian Schweitzer finally silenced the debate.

So when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks's Rebecca Cooper trucked to eastern Montana this week, Fort Peck Fish and Game Director Robert Magnan welcomed the visit as good tidings. He'd been waiting two years for the agency to review the $200,000 infrastructure the tribes set up to accommodate a splinter herd of bison from Yellowstone. Cooper's tour—part of a pending bison translocation proposal—marked the first step forward in a long time.

"I asked her, 'Where does Fort Peck stand?'" Magnan told the Indy. "She said, 'Right now, you're standing pretty good because you're pretty much ready for everything.'"

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Magnan says the agency is pushing to relocate the bison from Gardiner in late summer or early fall.

Cooper was bound for Fort Belknap for a similar review Tuesday, but her work isn't restricted to tribal lands. She's also reviewed several plots of state land, including the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area near Deer Lodge, that FWP is considering for bison relocation.

"We wanted to transfer bison to [Fort Peck] in the last round, but there was a question of inadequate fencing, so we didn't," says FWP Deputy Director Art Noonan. "It's been our intention to transfer to the tribes when they became capable of holding the bison."

Magnan feels that time is now, though he understands relocation itself is still up in the air. FWP's proposal has to go through public comment, and a bill on Schweitzer's desk to restrict bison transportation could set plans back at least another two years. Magnan is cautiously optimistic, but says that with nothing grazing those 4,800 acres, he needs an answer soon.

"My grasses are getting so thick in there it's getting me scared that a fire could happen," he says. "I need to find out. If not, I need to get my present herd in there to eat it down a bit."

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