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Associated Press Department of Livestock battles the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks over movement of animals

HELENA - Two state agencies disagree over the danger posed by the release into the wild of hundreds of elk from a game farm in western Montana, and have squared off in a legal battle to block movement of the animals.

The Department of Livestock has dismissed as "suspect" concerns by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that the elk could spread chronic wasting disease to wild game. It told a judge not to rely on the wildlife agency's claims in deciding whether to allow the elk to be given to the Crow Tribe.

The Livestock Department also said the Big Velvet Ranch herd has been extensively tested for the fatal disease in recent years and "the state veterinarian considers it highly unlikely that CWD is present in the defendants' alternative livestock herd."

Fish, Wildlife and Parks insists that allowing ranch owners Len and Pamela Wallace to hand over all 500 head of elk to the tribe for release on the Crow Indian Reservation could bring disease and genetic pollution to native wildlife.

The department also contends the Wallaces broke the law in allowing the tribe to take 68 elk last week without ensuring the animals would remain penned on the reservation.

The Wallaces, through their attorney, said they have operated their game farm according to state laws and have met all the legal requirements for transferring the elk to the tribe.

The fish and game agency has no authority to block the shipment of elk and no jurisdiction over the what happens to the animals when owned by a sovereign nation such as the Crow Tribe, said Stan Kaleczyc, the Wallaces' lawyer.

The three-way battle, scheduled for a hearing Wednesday before District Judge Dorothy McCarter of Helena, has left the tribe largely on the sideline.

LeRoy Not Afraid, Crow spokesman, said the tribe is neutral in the fight.

"We've been caught in the crossfire between a game farm owner that is bound by Montana law and the state of Montana," he said. "With transfer of the titles of these elk who now belong to the Crow Tribe, we feel that this is an unfortunate situation."

Not Afraid acknowledged the tribe is aware some elk could have the fatal wasting disease, since no live test for the infection is available.

"We do realize that the risk is there," he said. "However, from the records we've seen, we believe that Len Wallace has done everything in his power to make sure these elk are as healthy as possible."

The dispute began last week when fish and game officials learned of Wallace's plan to give his elk to the tribe because he could no longer afford to operate his 2,000-acre game farm. The first truckload of 68 head were shipped before the wildlife agency obtained a temporary court order banning further shipments.

Wednesday's hearing will determine whether that order should be lifted.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks argues it should not.

The Wallaces, as licensed game farm owners, are responsible for knowing where their animals are to be sent and state law requires game farm animals be kept only at licensed and properly fenced game farms, the department said.

The reservation does not fit that description and, by allowing their elk to be released into the wild, the Wallaces are violating the law, the agency said.

"Where the alternative livestock elk eventually turn up is, indeed, the business of Len and Pamela Wallace," it added.

The Wallaces said the Livestock Department - not the fish and game agency - has authority over the inspection, transportation and health of game farm animals, and livestock officials have approved the transfer.

Mere speculation about the potential for disease spread is not enough to justify a court order halting the elk shipments, the Wallaces said.

"FWP cannot demonstrate any harm will occur to Montana's human, livestock, or native deer and elk populations as a result of the proposed transfer of elk from defendants to the Crow Tribe," they said.

The Livestock Department said 356 Big Velvet elk tested free of chronic wasting disease over the past two years and that led the state veterinarian to conclude the herd is "no realistic threat" to livestock or wild deer and elk.

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