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Yellowstone bison could launch new herds without risking cattle, study says


March 1 (Reuters) - Wild bison from Yellowstone National Park that are deemed free of cattle disease could be safely used to establish new herds elsewhere across the American West without posing a risk to livestock, a U.S. Department of Agriculture study concluded.

The findings raise hopes of park managers, Native American tribes and wildlife advocates that efforts to restore bison populations derived from the nation's last pure-bred band of wild bison will face less resistance from the cattle industry.

But representatives of cattle producers who have long fought to keep Yellowstone's wild bison, or buffalo, from straying outside the park say their concerns are not entirely allayed by the study.

The research was due to be published in Saturday's edition of the Journal of theAmerican Veterinary Medical Association.

"The study is a valuable contribution to advancing bison conservation," said David Hallac, chief of the Yellowstone Center for Resources, the park's science and research branch.

Bison once ranged by the tens of millions west of the Mississippi until systematic hunting reduced their numbers to the fewer than 50 that found refuge in YellowstoneNational Park in the early 20th century.

Today, the more than 4,000 buffalo that roam Yellowstone are a top tourist attraction in the park, which occupies the northwestern corner of Wyoming and spills over intoIdaho and Montana. But the iconic animals face capture and death when they wander beyond the park in Montana during winter in search of food.

Roughly half of Yellowstone bison have been exposed to brucellosis, an infection that can cause stillbirths in cows and was introduced to the park by domestic livestock.

Montana's cattle industry, an influential political constituency in the state, fears that straying buffalo will transmit the illness to cows that graze near Yellowstone. That could cause Montana to lose its brucellosis-free status, which allows cattle to be shipped out of state without testing and preserves their market value.