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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters Life!) - Less than a week after 25 wild buffalo from the nation's last purebred herd were permitted to roam into Montana, officials have shot and killed one bison and were debating the fate of 14 others.
Government wildlife managers on January 19 drove a trial band of buffalo, or bison, from Yellowstone National Park into nearby Gallatin National Forest in Montana to use winter grazing grounds for the first time in more than a century.
The plan represented a hard-won agreement among federal and state governments, ranchers and conservation groups over an animal that symbolizes the American West.
Until now, any of the 3,900 buffalo escaping the deep snows of Yellowstone to forage in Montana's lowlands were chased back into the park, quarantined or killed to stop them from infecting cattle with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort.
The 25 buffalo pushed by officials on horseback and on all-terrain vehicles onto forest lands in Montana were meant to stay until spring, when biologists hoped they would migrate back to the park.
But officials say 15 of the brucellosis-free band repeatedly crossed to private ground on the east side of the Yellowstone River, where they are not tolerated.
Seven government wranglers spent most of Sunday and Monday trying to drive a bison cow back to public lands before Montana Department of Livestock agents decided to shoot and kill the animal for acting aggressive.
"They couldn't get her turned around so they had to lethally remove her," said agency spokesman Steve Merritt.
Pat Flowers, regional supervisor for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said shooting the bison was a last resort.
"The good news is that 10 of the bison have found habitat on the forest," he said.
Officials on Tuesday were still searching for a buffalo yearling that wandered off earlier this week and weighing options for the remaining 13 bison that will not stay put.
Hunting of buffalo west of the Mississippi river cut their numbers from tens of millions to the fewer than 50 in the early 20th century. That small band took refuge in Yellowstone, which stretches across parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Millions of visitors flock to the park every year to view wildlife such as bison, which have a high rate of exposure to brucellosis. About half the Yellowstone herd has been exposed to the bacteria and an estimated 25 percent infected.
Those rates alarm Montana's billion-dollar cattle industry, with producers fearing disease-bearing bison will jeopardize the state's brucellosis-free status. That U.S. Department of Agriculture designation means Montana livestock can be shipped across state lines without testing and maintain market value.
Ken McDonald, Montana's chief of wildlife, said it is possible managers will change out the uncooperative bison with others quarantined on the edge of the park.
"They're like little kids, they do just the opposite of what you tell them," he said. "A bison has a mind of its own at times."
The outcome of this year's experiment will shape the plan over the next several years to establish a 100-strong herd permitted to migrate annually between from Yellowstone.
Some conservationists argue that wild buffalo should never have been captured, tested and collared for the experiment in the first place. And they say wildlife experts should have known bison would roam.
"They thought the buffalo would stay in this little magic area designated for them and buffalo don't tend to do that," said Dan Brister, head of Buffalo Field Campaign.
More than 3,500 Yellowstone bison have been killed by the government or by public hunting since 2000.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune