BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Sixty-four bison from Yellowstone National Park were due to arrive at northeast Montana's Fort Peck Reservation on Monday, under a long-stalled relocation initiative meant to repopulate parts of the West with the iconic, genetically pure animals.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer described the bison transfer as a major step in efforts to bring the animals back across a larger landscape.
"This is where we're going to establish the beachhead of genetically pure bison that will be available as their numbers grow to go to other reservations and other public lands all across the West," Schweitzer said.
Tribal and state officials signed an agreement late Friday allowing the transfer to take place, said Robert Magnan with the Fort Peck Fish and Game Department.
For the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes of Fort Peck, tribal leaders said the relocation offers a chance to revive their connection with an animal that historically provided food, clothing and shelter for their ancestors.
Most bison, also known as buffalo, are hybrids that have been interbred with cattle. Yellowstone's animals are said to represent one of the world's last remaining reservoirs of pure bison genetics.
"One of the main things we're trying to do is preserve the genetic integrity of these animals," Magnan said. "The cultural links from those genetics will be the closest to the bison of our ancestors."
Details of the shipment were kept quiet until it was under way to avoid a court injunction, Magnan said. A group of northeast Montana landowners and property groups filed a lawsuit in state district court in January seeking to stop the transfer.
Several prior attempts to relocate the animals failed because of opposition from cattle producers and difficulty finding public or tribal land suitable for the bison.
State wildlife officials have said the relocation of the Yellowstone bison may help answer the question of whether the species can be reintroduced to some public lands in Montana where they once roamed freely. Overhunting in the 19th century wiped out vast herds of millions of bison that once roamed across most of North America.
About half of the animals heading to Fort Peck will possibly be relocated later this year to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in central Montana. Fences for those animals have not yet been completed.
The animals have been confined to quarantine just north of the park for several years.
They were captured leaving the park during their winter migration and tested extensively to make sure they were free of brucellosis. That disease, which can cause pregnant animals to abort their young, was for many years the primary argument for preventing Yellowstone bison from roaming freely outside the park.
But critics of the relocation have lingering worries about bison competing with cattle for rangeland.
State Sen. Rick Ripley, a Wolf Creek Republican and plaintiff in the landowners' lawsuit, criticized Monday's move and said it was in defiance of a law passed last year that required officials to come up with a state-wide bison management plan before moving the animals.
"They just seem to think they are above the law," Ripley said. "They're going to have a lot of problems with damage to private property that they could have addressed prior to translocation."
The 64 bison and their offspring will remain inside a fenced compound on the reservation and should not cause any problems for the neighbors of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, Magnan said.
The tribes already have about 200 bison in a commercial herd that are used for meat and hunting. But those animals are not genetically pure like the Yellowstone bison.
A 65th bison that was scheduled to be transferred Monday recently died after getting gored by another bison, Schweitzer said.