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Court upholds plan to let bison roam freely in large region near Yellowstone

Jan 8, 2013 - The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Montana's decision to let migrating bison roam freely across 70,000 acres outside Yellowstone National Park was upheld by a court ruling Monday that dismissed a pair of lawsuits challenging the policy.

The ruling could affect bison in Wyoming, and its implementation and impact will be watched closely in Wyoming, where buffalo sometimes stray from the park as well.

District Judge E. Wayne Phillips issued a 78-page ruling siding with state officials and conservation groups that have sought to ease restrictions on bison movements.

Thousands of bison flood out of Yellowstone during severe winters. In the past, the animals were subject to mass slaughters over fears they could spread the disease brucellosis to livestock.

The slaughters were blocked by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer two winters ago after cattle numbers declined outside Yellowstone and federal officials reduced the penalties for states that have brucellosis outbreaks.

But when hundreds of bison were allowed to return to the Gardiner Basin, local officials said they posed a threat to safety and destroyed private property.

Park County and groups representing ranchers sued the state in 2011 with a pair of lawsuits that sought to keep bison out of the basin.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued the animals were a threat to public safety and their presence outside the park increased the risk of disease.

In his ruling, Phillips acknowledged the plaintiffs' struggles with bison, but said those were an unavoidable consequence of living in Montana with its abundant wildlife.

State officials "do not have a statutory duty to ensure that no harm is incurred by a Montana resident by a wild animal," he said.

He added that damage done by bison to fences and other private property in the Gardiner Basin "does not rise to the level of an interference that is both substantial and unreasonable."

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