BILLINGS - Attorneys for Montana's cattle industry on Wednesday asked a state court to block a new agreement that would allow more bison to roam freely outside Yellowstone National Park.
In the last two decades more than 5,000 bison leaving the park have been slaughtered by government agencies and shot by hunters, to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis.
An agreement reached Dec. 17 between Montana and federal agencies could slow the killing. It would let bison - including some that carry the disease - migrate to limited areas outside the park as long as cattle were not present.
The agreement broke a long-standing impasse on how to manage Yellowstone's estimated 3,000 bison, one of the largest surviving herds of a species pushed to near extinction in the 19th century. But the cattle industry says the balance has now tipped too far in favor of bison, putting livestock at increased risk of disease.
Industry attorneys submitted court filings asking state District Judge Loren Tucker of Virginia City to block part of the new agreement.
They are opposed to unlimited numbers of bison roaming during winter on about 10,000 acres west of Yellowstone park.
The area in contention, known as Horse Butte, no longer has cattle ranches but is adjacent to rangeland where cattle graze in the spring.
Montana Stockgrowers Association attorney Jim Brown said brucella, the bacteria that causes the disease, can survive for months in the remains of aborted calves.
"By allowing an unlimited number of bison and untested bison the exposure to the brucella increases substantially," Brown said.
Attorneys said that in a Wednesday teleconference with Tucker, the judge set a late January deadline for legal arguments but no date for a hearing.
Brucellosis causes cows to prematurely abort their calves. It has been wiped out nationwide except in the Yellowstone area.
No direct bison-to-cattle transmissions of the disease have been recorded. Infections found in seven cattle herds in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana in recent years were all linked to elk - although those elk could have been infected by Yellowstone bison.
The Stockgrowers request for an injunction did not extend to pending bison management changes on the north side of the park, where 25 disease-free bison will gain access this winter to about 2,500 acres of Forest Service land.
Other plaintiffs in the case are Sitz Angus Ranch and rancher Bill Myers.
They first sued Montana officials and the Montana Department of Livestock last spring, claiming the state was not enforcing the Interagency Bison Management Plan. That 2000 document governs the bison capture and slaughter program. The Dec. 17 agreement altered the document, to relax rules for bison.
Even before that change, state and federal officials had shown more tolerance for bison in the Horse Butte area. Montana livestock officials were no longer testing all bison for disease as called for in the 2000 plan. And they had allowed some of the animals to linger outside Yellowstone past a May 15 removal deadline.
Christian Mackay, executive officer of the Montana Department of Livestock, said his agency has tried to walk a fine line between satisfying cattle interests and showing more tolerance for bison.
"We've got a pretty sound plan in place," Mackay said. "We have not had a transmission from bison to cattle. We've maintained a wild, free-ranging herd, as outlined under the IBMP (Interagency Bison Management Plan). And as a result of that, nobody's happy."
Conservation groups and members of Congress from outside Montana had pushed for the more relaxed management rules adopted last week. Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council contended the changes did not go far enough.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice has intervened in the Stockgrowers lawsuit to defend the government's increased flexibility on bison.
"We're going to oppose the Stockgrowers' efforts to stop those reforms," said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso.