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For a decade, Yellowstone National Park officials have envisioned wild bison roaming in the Gardiner Basin, the first step toward giving the burly animals more room to roam in Montana.

That reality may finally be just days away.

Wildlife officials plan to haze 25 bison onto the Church Universal and Triumphant's Royal Teton Ranch this week, the culmination of a $3.3 million deal between government agencies and the church, according to Al Nash, a spokesman for the park.

Bison wander, Nash said, and this is part of a long-term plan to give them more places to wander to without slaughtering them or hazing them back into the park, Nash said.

"This is about recognizing that bison and other wildlife don't see those boundaries that people do," Nash said.

As part of the deal, CUT agreed to remove all cattle from the ranch and give the government a 30-year grazing lease. But after years of being turned back, the bison didn't migrate in that direction naturally. And they were not hazed northward out of the park.

So this week wildlife officials are nudging the animals in that direction.

"We didn't make progress at the pace envisioned, but we are making that progress," Nash said. "This, in its way, is certainly another watershed event."

On Tuesday afternoon, 23 bison were hazed into a fenced pasture at the Stephens Creek facility northwest of Gardiner, the first of 60 to 80 bison that will be moved to the facility and tested for exposure to brucellosis, a disease that causes animals to abort their young.

Of the bison found to be free of the disease, 25 will be taken to the Royal Teton Ranch.

The park and other cooperating agencies will monitor the bison's behavior and discuss whether to increase that population to 50. Eventually, up to 100 untested bison could be using the land, Nash said.

In addition, the church's property could serve as a migration path between the national park and national forest land.

"There can be a time where bison will move themselves onto public land," he said.

Gallatin National Forest officials, according to spokeswoman Marna Daley, are looking forward to having the bison on the forest and learning how the animals will use the land.

Ultimately, the goal is to reduce management and contact with the animals, Nash said. And that's in line with the Interagency Bison Management Plan, which aims to "conserve a viable, wild bison population while protecting Montana's brucellosis-free status."

But not everyone is a fan of the Royal Teton Ranch plan.

Members of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a nonprofit bison advocacy group, claim the bison are being treated like livestock, and on Wednesday called the move a "scheme" that harms and disrespects the animals.

"These buffalo will suffer the torments of hazing, capture, squeeze chutes and blood tests," Stephany Seay, the group's media coordinator, said in a prepared statement. "They will then be pushed into this ill-thought Corridor to Nowhere surrounded by electric fencing and cattle guards, while the rest are forced back into Yellowstone."

But Patricia Dowd, Yellowstone program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, is more optimistic. She said the relocation is "a step forward in expanding habitat opportunities" for bison.

She said she hopes they learn to naturally migrate to the land.

"Is hazing bison ideal? No," she said. "It's not 100 percent perfect, of course, but nothing is - so we're looking at the big picture and at small steps."

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or cflandro@dailychronicle.com.

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