(Reuters) - Nearly 140 bison originally from Yellowstone National Park that were quarantined on a ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner to create a herd free of a cattle disease will be transported late on Wednesday to an Indian reservation in Montana.
The relocation of the bison temporarily confined at Turner’s Montana ranch were part of a successful government experiment that isolated the animals to produce a band free of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cows to miscarry and affects about half of Yellowstone’s more than 4,000 buffalo.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission last month unanimously approved giving the brucellosis-free bison to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana.
The commission chose the tribes over a proposal that would have seen animals from the country’s last wild herd of purebred buffalo sent to such facilities as New York’s Bronx and Queens zoos.
That plan was rejected amid calls by wildlife advocates to restore the bison to Indian lands in Montana where tribal biologists have already proved they can be managed on 13,000 acres of rolling plains where the iconic, hump-shouldered creatures once roamed by the hundreds of thousands.
In 2012, Fort Peck saw the historic return of 63 Yellowstone buffalo under a plan crafted by state, federal and tribal bison managers. The tribe’s management of its small herd relieved fears expressed by Montana ranchers that the buffalo would plow through fences erected on the sprawling reservation and damage surrounding private property.
The bison, tallied at 139 animals instead of the estimated 145, are to make the nine-hour journey to Fort Peck during nighttime hours on Wednesday in cattle trucks.
They are to be met on Thursday morning at the reservation by crowds gathered to herald the animals’ arrival, said Robbie Magnan, head of Fort Peck’s fish and wildlife program.
Magnan said the tribes were celebrating the return of animals at the center of spiritual, cultural and dietary traditions that span thousands of years.
The bison are remnants of millions-strong herds that ranged west of the Mississippi River before systematic hunting reduced their numbers to the fewer than 50 that found refuge at Yellowstone in the early 20th century.
“We are welcoming the buffalo back to their native lands. It is a homecoming,” Magnan said.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney