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Bison Take ‘Baby Steps’

For the first time in almost a century, bison from Yellowstone National Park are grazing in a new setting: the prairie of Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch in Montana.

They're part of an experiment to see whether disease-free bison from the last wild remnant of America's herds can remain healthy and someday return to public and tribal lands across the West.

Some conservationists hail the move as a first step toward seeing an icon of the Wild West roam again. Until now, bison that overpopulated Yellowstone and wandered away in search of food were chased back or trucked to slaughterhouses. In 2008, 1,400 were slaughtered by state and federal livestock agents.

"These are the first baby steps toward dispersing excess or overflow Yellowstone bison to appropriate historic roaming grounds," says Jeff Welsch of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a conservation group that works to expand natural ecosystems.

"Ultimately, our goal is the conservation of these bison and the ability to expand the herd so they can be distributed on public land," says Russ Miller, general manager of Turner Enterprises' 15 ranches in seven states and a herd of 55,000 bison.

After five years, Turner will return the 88 bison and 25 percent of their offspring. He will keep 75 percent of the offspring, projected to be 185 animals, Miller says.

Conservationists, ranchers and American Indians are split. Turner, founder of CNN, is one of the largest producers of bison meat and supplies retailers such as Whole Foods Market and his own Ted's Montana Grill chain of bison steakhouses.

"These are America's bison, the last pure bison, and here we are making a deal with a bison entrepreneur," says Mike Mease, co-founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a conservation group that advocates returning bison to all their historic range, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Rockies. "The uniquely wild nature" of the Yellowstone herd is "something we do not have to domesticate and turn into another cow."

Many ranchers in the West pay a fee to graze their cattle on public lands. They worry that bison would compete for grassland and threaten cattle with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort their calves and can cause a fever in humans.

"Bison are big, hairy, shaggy beasts, but they're wild," says Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen's Association.

Jim Stone is executive director of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, a group working to move Yellowstone bison to Indian reservations as a source of low-fat meat and to reconnect tribal youth with their past. He sees the transfer to Turner as "a lesser evil" that will lead to bison proliferating.

Sixty million bison once grazed the prairies and mountain lowlands of North America, according to the National Bison Association, which represents meat producers. Plains Indians followed the herds, eating their meat, using their hides for clothing and shelter and revering them as spiritual ancestors. In the 1800s, hunters satisfying the European fur market nearly exterminated the species. By 1893, only 300 bison remained, the association says.

In 1902, the last herd of undomesticated bison in the USA numbered fewer than 50 animals in Yellowstone, according to the Montana Department of Livestock. That herd has grown to 4,500.

The Yellowstone herd is considered the last reservoir of bison that are genetically pure and have always been wild, Welsch says. The park also is the last place in the USA to find brucellosis, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife&Parks. The disease is found in 40 percent to 60 percent of Yellowstone bison.

In 2000, a group of state and federal agricultural and wildlife agencies proposed an experiment to see whether groups of 50 disease-free Yellowstone bison would remain healthy under quarantine and could later repopulate public and tribal lands. The project never got off the ground. Some members of tribes refused to share their cattle range with bison.

"The issue is a battle for grass," Stone says. "When you start bringing in buffalo, it's going to start eating a lot of the grass, and that puts it in direct competition with cattle."

Turner expects to spend $96,000 a year on the bison, Miller says. He could use the offspring as breeding stock for his commercial herd.

Vicki Olson of Malta, whose family has raised cattle for five generations, worries about a bison preserve proposed for the range neighboring her ranch. Olson runs her cattle through that land, and she fears that the strong, unruly buffalo will attack her or her herd and that the local economy will suffer if wildlife displaces working farms.

"If they turn it over to bison instead of cattle, it's going to hurt us terribly," she says.

David Risley, Montana's fish and wildlife administrator, says bison are an emotional issue.

"The best-case scenario is if we could find a place where we could put bison on public land where they'll have minimal or no conflict with other livestock owners," Risley says. "We have to make sure we have such an area, and make sure we have public support."

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