Montana governor grants reprieve for Yellowstone bison

SALMON, Idaho Tue Feb 15, 2011 10:00pm EST

Buffalo in Yellowstone in a file photo. REUTERS/File

Buffalo in Yellowstone in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/File

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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Montana's governor on Tuesday barred Yellowstone buffalo exposed to a livestock disease from entering his state, effectively granting a temporary reprieve for the 217 buffalo targeted for slaughter.

The order by Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, cited worries about brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can cause cows to miscarry, to temporarily delay government plans to ship buffalo exposed to the disease to slaughterhouses in Montana.

Schweitzer's move is the latest twist in a weeks-long saga over buffalo, or bison, that sought to escape the deep snows of Yellowstone Park in search of food in nearby Montana lowlands.

Government wranglers have corralled 525 of the straying bison, 217 of which have tested positive for exposure to brucellosis and were slated to be killed.

Tensions over the fate of the iconic Western animals have mounted in recent weeks, with conservationists seeking a stay of execution in U.S. District Court. A federal judge on Monday denied that request.

Saying that Montana lawmakers and cattle ranchers believe importation of Yellowstone bison presents "an unacceptable risk for the transmission of brucellosis," Schweitzer banned the animals from the state for 90 days.

Bison advocates welcomed the temporary reprieve.

"The effect is a stay of execution so we're very grateful for this news," said Dan Brister, head of Buffalo Field Campaign, one of several conservation, tribal and sportsmen groups that sued to save the bison from slaughter.

The Yellowstone bison, which number 3,700, are prized as the nation's last purebred herd of wild buffalo. The wildlife such as bison draw millions of visitors every year to Yellowstone.

It is not the first time that Montana's maverick governor has charged into a debate over wild bison.

In 2006, Schweitzer began brokering a deal with ranchers fearing the loss of the state's brucellosis-free status, which helps to maintain the market value of Montana cattle, and conservationists lobbying to protect the bison. The negotiations ultimately expanded the range Yellowstone bison could roam outside Yellowstone National Park without threat of execution.

Yellowstone officials on Tuesday said the governor's order was still under review.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)

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