By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- The relocation of Yellowstone National Park bison to tribal lands in Montana can resume, under a Wednesday ruling from the state's Supreme Court that revives a stalled conservation initiative for the animals.
Bison, also known as buffalo, once numbered in the tens of millions across North America, before overhunting drove them to near-extinction. Government-sponsored efforts in Montana have the potential to return the burly animals to parts of their historic range, but had been on hold since last year.
That's when a lower court sided with ranchers and property rights advocates, who sued to block further transfers of the animals after Montana wildlife officials moved more than 60 bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
Critics said the move was illegal under state law. They argued wild bison damage fences, eat hay meant for cattle, and potentially could spread animal diseases to livestock.
In March of 2012, state district Judge John McKeon sided with plaintiffs including several northeastern Montana ranchers and property owners. The judge issued an order blocking future transfers of Yellowstone bison and effectively halting the restoration program.
In Wednesday's ruling, six justices on the state's high court came down on the side of the state, which had argued that the law in question did not apply to bison moved to tribal lands.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote in the 16-page opinion that the relocation program was a "reasoned and viable" alternative to past practices involving Yellowstone bison. Those have included the wholesale slaughter of thousands of bison in the name of disease control when the animals crossed into Montana during winter migrations.
A representative of the plaintiffs said the ruling effectively guts an attempt by the Montana Legislature last session to allow public input into the bison relocation process. Chuck Denowh with United Property Owners of Montana said the group is not strictly opposed to relocating bison but wants to inject transparency into the process.
Last year's relocation, during the administration of former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, came with little prior notice.
An attorney for conservation groups that intervened on behalf of the state said the ruling will allows most immediately the transfer of several dozen bison to the Fort Belknap Reservation.
The animals once played a central role in American Indian life, providing meat for food, and pelts for clothing and shelter. They also feature prominently in many Native American religious ceremonies.
Robert Magnan, Fish and Game director for the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, said he hoped Wednesday's ruling will allow the tribe to increase the size of its small bison herd to several hundred animals. The best prospect for that is to get some of the park's animals now being held on the state's behalf at a private ranch owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner near Bozeman.
The bison spent several years in quarantine just outside the park, to make sure they were free of brucellosis. The disease can cause infected cattle to abort their young.
"We're hoping we can start working with Yellowstone to get other (bison) out of their quarantine," Magnan said. "It's a good, positive way of moving buffalo, not only to tribal lands, but there are other places in Montana that would be ideal.
For the tribes, bison meat provides a healthier source of protein than beef, Magnan added. That could help reduce obesity and bring down the high rate of diabetes for those on the reservations, he said.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said future bison transfers to tribal lands will occur only if the receiving reservation has signed a legal agreement with the state. That document would cover issues including fencing, disease testing and established protocols in the event animals escape.
Additional relocations -- onto state wildlife management areas or other public lands -- would not take place until the agency completes a pending long-range bison management strategy. That statewide plan is due by the end of 2015, Aasheim said.