HELENA - State wildlife officials here have approved a plan to ship 41 Yellowstone bison considered brucellosis-free to an Indian reservation in Wyoming.

The bison have undergone a rigorous quarantine program in Paradise Valley that government biologists are confident ensures the animals pose no disease threat to livestock in the West. The quarantine program aims to expand the range of the Yellowstone bison, which possess genetics considered important by scientists. This would be the first cohort of quarantined bison shipped out of the quarantine facilities in Corwin Springs.

Meanwhile in Helena, in a move considered to be of even more long-term significance to the quarantine program, lawmakers this week tabled a bill that would have barred FWP from placing any of the quarantined bison within Montana. While the bill could be brought back to life, the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee's action on Tuesday is a serious blow to the legislation's prospects at becoming law.

While the bill had been opposed by many conservation groups, its tabling is especially good news for two Montana Indian reservations, Forts Peck and Belknap, which have expressed interest in receiving bison from the quarantine program.

Under the quarantine program, 100 bison calves were captured in Yellowstone National Park in 2005 and 2006 and tested at least twice a year for brucellosis. Bison that repeatedly showed no exposure to the disease were kept, and produced their first offspring last spring.

Tribes were the only groups stepping up to take the bison when FWP announced it was looking for land to place the bison, a fact Jim Stone, executive director of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, said can be explained by the connection American Indians have with the species and pervasive distrust of how the American government manages the animal.

"It returns control and management back to people who have the interest of the animals in mind," he said. "We're bringing them into protective custody on the reservation. We're looking at the big picture."

In January, state and federal wildlife officials recommended the Wind River Reservation be given the first cohort of bison following a competitive bid process. Under the plan, the Northern Arapaho Tribe must manage the bison as wildlife and follow a management plan submitted to wildlife officials when they applied to take the small herd. The bison, and their offspring, cannot be used sold as livestock.

Stone said the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations are still interested in taking bison, though they lost out to the Arapaho Tribe this year.

And while no Montana sites were picked for this cohort, Keith Aune, who helped develop the quarantine program and recently retired from FWP, said allowing groups to manage the Yellowstone bison in Montana is symbolically important.

"Is it absolutely essential? No. Is it important? Yes. It's important to look at bison through a little bit different lens," he said.

Aune testified against Senate Bill 337, which was sponsored by Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey.

Brenden, backed by the agriculture industry, argued that brucellosis can lie latent in bison and go undetected, and that bison coming out of quarantine would still pose a serious threat to Montana cattle. He and others also argued that wandering herds of bison could cause headaches for neighboring landowners.

But Aune said the brucellosis fear was a "red herring," saying latent infections were exactly what the program tests for.

The bill cruised out of the Senate on a 31-19 vote, but ran into opposition in the House committee, where some representatives said it would frustrate a plan that is supported by both state and federal agriculture agencies.

"They support these five years of testing," said Rep. Paul Beck, D-Red Lodge. "These bison have been tested to death. This bill would gut the whole plan."

The committee voted to 12-6 to table it Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Brenden Friday urged people to continue fighting the spread of wild bison across Montana.

"The main thing is the people need to keep putting pressure on the agencies and the governor's office so we don't get these bison translocated in Montana," he said.

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com.