By Laura Zuckerman
May 9 (Reuters) - Montana wildlife managers on Friday backed off a plan to allow ranchers near Yellowstone National Park to kill elk as a disease prevention measure, after the plan sparked criticism and a lawsuit by hunting groups, an official said.
State wildlife commissioners last month approved the pilot project designed to lessen risks of elk infecting cattle in Montana with brucellosis, which can cause cows to miscarry.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said the agency retreated from the plan in light of the lawsuit and conflicts with hunting groups.
"We've regrouped here and said, 'Let's not fight this, let's work out an amicable solution,'" he said.
The plan to target elk from the area of Yellowstone National Park was backed by the state's influential livestock industry, which fears wild herds of elk and bison exposed to the disease. The wild animals seasonally migrate from Yellowstone into Montana, and ranchers worry that could threaten the state's brucellosis-free status, which allows their cattle to be shipped across state lines without testing.
But the proposal to allow ranchers to kill as many as three elk each during a period when many elk cows are pregnant drew the ire of sportsmen, whose hunting licenses and tags provide the bulk of revenue for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and who have traditionally been the agency's staunchest allies in battles with conservationists over wildlife management.
Elk are the latest wildlife in contention in a years-long fight over brucellosis that has seen thousands of Yellowstone bison captured and sent to slaughter for wandering into Montana in search of food.
The Skyline Sportsmen's Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen's Club this week asked a state judge to halt the elk killing plan.
The Montana-based hunting groups claimed in the lawsuit that transmission of brucellosis from wild animals to domestic cattle "is rare and unlikely" and faulted the wildlife agency for management strategies that focused on thinning wild bison and elk herds instead of pushing for vaccination of cattle.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ken Wills)