Montana's free-roaming bison plan in judge's hands

Associated Press Modified: November 5, 2012 at 7:16 pm •  Published: November 5, 2012

BILLINGS, Mont (AP) — A legal dispute over whether migrating bison can roam freely across 70,000 acres outside Yellowstone National Park is before a Montana judge after attorneys offered closing arguments in the case Monday.

State officials opened the Gardiner Basin just north of the park to migrating bison last year after they had been barred for decades. It was an attempt to curb periodic slaughters that have killed thousands of the animals to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis to cattle.

But county officials and ranchers who live outside the park want state District Judge Wayne Phillips to restore restrictions on the animals' movements.

They say the bison threaten the safety of residents in the basin and could spread brucellosis to livestock.

A trial in the case that began earlier this year concluded Monday.

State veterinarian Marty Zaluski testified that the disease transmission risk is unchanged or slightly lower since bison were let back into the Gardiner Basin. That gave state and federal officials more room to manage the wild animals, while newly-constructed fences will keep them away from the two cattle ranches that still operate in the area, Zaluski said.

The two sides have until Nov. 26 to submit their final arguments and conclusions, after which Phillips has said he will rule.

Hundreds of bison flooded into the basin two winters ago before the state formally lifted restrictions in the area.

During prior testimony in the lawsuits, an undersheriff from Park County said dozens of complaints came in from residents worried about their safety. And county officials have said public property was damaged by bison that pushed up against or knocked down fences and other structures.

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