By MATT VOLZ
HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Montana wildlife officials on Wednesday said they will recommend the relocation of 68 quarantined Yellowstone National Park bison to two Indian reservations after running into strong opposition by ranchers and landowners to proposals to move the animals to other parts of the state.
The bison could be moved to the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations this winter if the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approves the recommendation at its Dec. 9 meeting.
Tribal officials with the northeastern Montana reservations have been advocating the relocation for several years. They welcomed the news Wednesday and encouraged the commission to take the last step.
"I'm only hoping that the commission will deal with it in a positive way and let us have them," said Fort Peck Fish and Game director Robert Magnum. "They've been locked up in these holding cells long enough. It's time to give them some room to roam."
FWP officials proposed earlier this year to relocate up to 150 bison they say are disease-free after spending years in quarantine as part of a U.S. government program. That plan sparked a debate on whether the bison that once roamed the Great Plains by the millions still have a place in the landscape of the modern West.
The proposal generated more than 3,300 public comments and hours of testimony at hearings across the state.
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.
The ranchers, landowners and hunters in those areas expressed concern with the spread of disease and damage to private property.
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.
"We've been hoping for a better way for our cultural life, with the buffalo being so connected to us," Magnum said. "I'd like to see our dream come true now and start taking care of these guys."
FWP director Joe Maurier signed a record of decision Wednesday recommending the animals' relocation to the reservations. Neither the Spotted Dog nor Marias River sites will be recommended, according to an FWP statement.
The 68 bison to be relocated are now being held in a government-run quarantine center north of Yellowstone National Park near Corwin Springs. Another 143 bison that were part of the program are being held for the state on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner.
Those bison will remain on Turner's ranch through at least 2015, according to FWP.
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.
The tribes will have to continue testing the animals for the five years remaining in the program.
If the commission approves the move, all 68 bison will at first be moved to a 4,800-acre fenced area on the Fort Peck reservation capable of holding 150 animals, Magnum said.
Fort Belknap Fish and Game director Mark Azure said his tribe has selected a 1,900-acre area for the bison, which he hopes to have fenced and ready by next summer.
"With winter upon us, there's not a whole lot we can do," Azure said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.