(AP) - "A judge on Thursday ordered lawyers
for the Department of Livestock and three conservation
groups into settlement talks to try resolving a year-old
dispute over access to the agency's records on bison
management. District Judge Thomas Honzel of Helena said
negotiations should begin immediately and that both
sides should report their progress Friday. He said he
would consider appointing a "settlement master" if efforts
hearing in the case, scheduled for Thursday, was postponed
because Marc Bridges, executive officer for the department,
had a family emergency in Billings and could not testify.
legal battle began 14 months ago when Cold Mountain,
Cold Rivers; The Ecology Center Inc.; and Buffalo Field
Campaign asked to review and copy department files about
management of Yellowstone National Park bison as they
wander from the park. The organizations sued, claiming
the agency had violated the constitutional right to
know by refusing to fully comply with their request.
Federal and state efforts to control the animals, many
believed to be infected with brucellosis, have been
the subject of controversy for years. Bison that leave
Yellowstone and can't he hazed back into the park are
captured and tested for brucellosis. Those that test
positive are slaughtered. The management plan is based
on concerns that the animals may spread brucellosis
to cattle if allowed to roam outside the park. Brucellosis,
a contagious disease widespread in Yellowstone's bison
and elk herds, causes cattle to abort and can result
in undulant fever in humans.
Lindlief Hall, attorney for the conservation groups,
told Honzel she believes a settlement of the lawsuit
is possible. "We are very close," she said.
Jacobs, department attorney, said any agreement would
be subject to approval by the Board of Livestock. He
promised the agency would make a "good-faith effort
Some of the disagreement has centered on the conservation
groups' pending federal court suit over some bison management
practices. The department has argued that the request
for records was a back-door and improper attempt to
collect evidence for the organization's case.
Honzel rejected that contention last month, saying there
he didn't believe there was "any question" members of
the organizations have a right to inspect public documents.
"I think the department has an obligation to make its
documents open for inspection for whatever reason,"
the judge said at the time."