A controversial animal relocation is back in the works, with state Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Fort Belknap Indian Community officials signing an agreement to transfer 35 bison from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
The agreement comes after more than a year of legal battles, when Hi-Line ranchers and elected officials contested the state moving bison, following a relocation to Fort Peck.
The officials signed the agreement nearly two months after the Montana Supreme Court ruled Yellowstone National Park bison transfers could continue.
The memorandum of understanding was signed Tuesday by Fort Belknap tribal president Tracy King and Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener. A date for the transfer has not been set.
"We're excited to get this thing going finally," said Mark Azure, director of the Fort Belknap Fish, Wildlife and Buffalo program. "Our No. 1 goal of course is to ensure that we put the least amount of stress on these animals as possible."
FWP transferred more than 60 Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck in March 2012, with half slated to eventually go to Fort Belknap. The transfer was part of a conservation initiative meant to return the animals to parts of their historic range. The bison had spent years in federal quarantine program to ensure they were free of disease.
Ranchers and property rights advocates sued to prevent additional transfers after the relocation to Fort Peck. They argued that wild bison damage property and spread disease.
State district Judge John McKeon sided with them and issued an order in March 2012 blocking future transfers of Yellowstone bison.
In June, the state high court reversed McKeon's order, saying the relocation program was a "reasoned and viable" alternative to past practices involving Yellowstone bison that included the slaughter of thousands of the animals.
Disease tests must be completed before the transfer to Fort Belknap is finalized, Azure said.
The agreement requires the bison to be checked annually for disease and lays out the tribe's responsibility if they escape, he said.
The tribe also must report any births and deaths, and allows FWP officials to inspect the animals.
FWP will have the rights to 25 percent of the animals born.
The tribe has prepared a 1,000-acre pasture with an 8-foot high fence. The new bison, which do not have cattle genes, will be kept separate from the tribe's existing commercial herd of 500 bison.