By MATT GOURAS

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Bison advocates asked a federal judge Tuesday to order a new review of the Yellowstone National Park bison management plan, arguing the animals should be allowed to roam freely outside the park.

The federal government countered that the management plan is the product of years of work and has been improved to ensure the animals thrive and avoid contact with cattle, preventing transmission of brucellosis to the domestic herds.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles Lovell made it clear at the start that he better hear new information that distinguishes the case from at least 25 years of litigation on the issue.

Lovell said he has heard five cases on Yellowstone bison management since the mid-1980s. He said several of the cases resulted in the management seen in the park today, and he pointed out the bison have thrived in that time.

The judge noted that if the environmental groups get their way in the new case, Montana might be able to renew its court complaints from the 1990s against the federal government for not keeping the bison in the park.

Lovell also pointed out the bison hazing that environmentalists now argue is harming the animals was originally put in place during past litigation to avoid killing the animals.

Summer Lisa Nelson, a lawyer representing several environmental groups in the case, said the current management plan barring bison from wandering freely outside the park ignores new science on the issue. The groups want a new environmental assessment that allows public input.

"Things have changed tremendously since you have heard one of these cases," Nelson told the judge.

She said the park can hold more of the animals than previously thought, and an area known as Horse Butte no longer holds cattle.

And the fear of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle that prompted harsh control of bison is not warranted since elk were responsible for the most recent outbreak, Nelson told the judge.

Nelson said the groups want the U.S. Forest Service to allow bison outside the park on land under their supervision that can sustain the animals. She said bison are needed in the forest to provide for a diversity of animals.

"Surely another hard look is warranted so the agencies can ensure they don't act improperly," Nelson said.

Such a plan would undoubtedly rile ranchers who lease some of that land for grazing.

Paul Barker, representing the federal agencies in the issue, dismissed the environmental groups' new claims.

He said the Park Service, the Forest Service and others involved in management of the animals have acted on the best science to handle the situation, and improved their methods following a critical federal audit. Barker said the animals are thriving, and there is no evidence there is a shortage of bison habitat.

"I think it is fair to say that the Interagency Bison Management Plan has been very successful," Barker said. "There has been no documented transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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