Dozens of wild bison from Yellowstone National Park would be relocated to a Montana ranch owned by billionaire Ted Turner, under a recommendation made by state and federal officials Tuesday.
The animals were spared from a slaughter program intended to protect Montana's cattle industry from a disease carried by many bison. The plan was to use those animals _ considered disease-free _ to repopulate public and tribal lands across the West with free-roaming bison.
But after other offers to take the animals fell through or were judged insufficient, state and federal officials said Tuesday that Turner's private ranch was the best option.
A smaller group of eight to 14 bison would go to Guernsey State Park in Wyoming.
Turner already owns about 50,000 bison, most of them domesticated, and his restaurant chain Ted's Montana Grill serves buffalo burgers.
Some conservationists and at least one federal agency oppose the plan to supplement Turner's herd with Yellowstone's genetically pure bison. It still needs approval from the director of Montana's wildlife agency.
"Essentially you're privatizing public wildlife," said Ben Lamb, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation. "That's a very bad precedent to set."
A U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian also criticized the move, saying it went against the original intent of the bison relocation program launched in 2005.
Turner Enterprises general manager Russell Miller said Tuesday that the Yellowstone bison would not be harvested for their meat. However, their offspring could be sold as seed stock for new herds or bred with other Turner-owned bison to improve their genetics.
"The real value of these animals is more inherent _ it's the genetics," he said.
Under the recommendation made Tuesday by officials from six government agencies, an estimated 75 to 80 bison would be moved in the next several months to Turner's 113,000-acre Flying D Ranch. They would be kept on a 12,000-acre parcel and separated from other animals.
The herd would be expected to grow to about 300 animals over the next several years. Miller said roughly 150 bison would be returned to Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department after a five-year study expired.
The remainder would become Turner's property. Miller said keeping those bison was necessary to offset an estimated $480,000 in costs including veterinary care, disease testing, fencing and lost grazing opportunities.
Members of central Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation also sought the bison, which have been held since the winter of 2005-2006 in a fenced quarantine compound north of Yellowstone.
State and federal officials said the reservation's bid to take the animals lacked enough detail. But they promised that Fort Belknap would get first preference next year, when another batch of quarantined bison are due to be relocated.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks administrator Ken McDonald said giving up bison to Turner's ranch was not his preferred choice, and that his agency already is getting "a lot of backlash over the whole privatization thing."
But he said other options had dried up. An attempt to move the animals onto Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation fell through in the spring.
"There's a limited pool of applicants for these animals," McDonald said.
(This version ADDS comments from Turner ranch manager; corrects bison numbers)