SALMON, Idaho - For the first time in more than a century, wild buffalo from the nation's last purebred herd will be permitted to roam free in Montana outside the bounds of Yellowstone National Park.
Government scientists plan on Wednesday to drive 25 buffalo, or bison, through ranchlands north of the park and into the wide-open valleys of the Gallatin National Forest in south-central Montana.
The move marks a ceasefire in an age-old dispute among wildlife managers, livestock producers and conservation groups over the animal that symbolizes the wild American West.
Until now, any of the 3,900 buffalo fleeing the deep snows of Yellowstone for food in Montana's lowlands were chased back into the park, quarantined or killed to prevent them from infecting cattle with brucellosis, a disease that causes spontaneous abortions in cows.
The bison that will spend the winter months in the Gallatin Forest are free of the disease. They represent the beginning of what biologists hope will become a 100-strong herd allowed to migrate annually between the park and the national forest.
"It's a watershed event," said Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash. "It's a small number of bison, but it's a huge leap forward."
Systematic hunting of buffalo west of the Mississippi cut their numbers from tens of millions to the fewer than 50 in the early 20th century that found refuge in the nation's first national park. The descendants of that band have genetic roots dating to prehistoric times.
Montana's influential cattle producers fear disease-bearing bison jeopardize the state's brucellosis-free status.
That USDA designation means Montana livestock can be shipped across state lines without testing and maintain market value.
Ranchers are giving a lukewarm welcome at best to the introduction of the bison into Gallatin Forest, but they are far more fired up over a separate proposal by Montana that would relocate some of Yellowstone's brucellosis-free bison to a much broader range of wildlife areas.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission just approved funding for a study to identify state land suitable for bison. Fiercely opposed by ranchers, the proposal has divided conservation groups and hunters as well.
The Montana Wildlife Federation, a powerful lobby for hunters and anglers, applauds the idea of bison ranging freely on some landscapes.
"It's about time that this nation paid attention to an iconic wildlife species that has been nearly forgotten," said director Craig Sharpe.
But others worry about the prospect of bison, which can weigh up to a ton and hit speeds of 30 miles an hour, roaming where people fish and hunt. They also have concerns about access if the state should erect bison-proof fencing.
Ranchers worry about bison competing for forage and displacing cattle on state lands with livestock leases.
"Ranchers have a lot of fear that bison restoration will result in the destruction of cattle grazing," said central Montana rancher Errol Rice, vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
Animal advocates say the measure under review by the state would manage bison like so much domestic livestock.
"That doesn't meet the goal of a wild, free-ranging population," said Peter Bogusko, volunteer coordinator with the Buffalo Field Campaign.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)