By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - Montana wants 145 bison that originated in Yellowstone National Park given away to six organizations in five states, including New York's Bronx Zoo, to further the conservation of America's last pure-bred wild buffalo, under a plan released on Wednesday.

The select bison were part of an experiment Montana wildlife managers launched a decade ago with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that quarantined the animals to produce a herd certain to be free of a cattle disease carried by roughly half of Yellowstone's buffalo.

The success of the experiment, documented in a scientific study issued earlier this year, gave Montana assurance that relocating the bison to other states would not pose a risk of transmitting the bacterial disease, brucellosis, to commercial livestock. Infection in cattle can cause cows to miscarry.

The state reviewed 10 requests for donation of the buffalo but narrowed its choices to groups demonstrating the iconic, hump-shouldered animals would be used for conservation purposes or to augment existing herds, according to the plan.

Proposed recipients include the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the Queens and Bronx zoos in New York, the Wilds Conservation Park in Ohio and the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana.

Yellowstone is home to about 4,900 head of buffalo that represent the last remnants of the genetically pure, free-roaming animals that once thundered by the millions across the Western United States. Relentless hunting campaigns ultimately drove their numbers to the fewer than 50 bison that took refuge in the park in the early 20th century.

Although a top attraction for the millions of Yellowstone's annual visitors, the bison are not welcome when they wander across park boundaries into adjacent range lands in Montana in winter in search of food.

The state’s livestock industry fears that cattle exposure to wayward bison and infection with brucellosis will cause Montana to lose its valuable brucellosis-free status, which allows ranchers to sell and ship stock across state lines without tests, quarantine and vaccination.

The park already plans to reduce its bison population this winter by as many as 900 head by thinning the herd of animals that stray from the park, in what would be the largest such culling in seven years. The animals are to be removed through a mix of hunting and special roundups of bison that will then be given to American Indian tribes for slaughter.


(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Steve Gorman)