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A state agency wants a new judge to preside over lawsuits being brought by Park County and the Park County Stockgrowers Association over a decision allowing bison to freely roam the Gardiner Basin.

"We feel that this issue is of such local importance to the economy there and the people there that we should relieve the local judge of the responsibility to hear the case," said Rebecca Jakes Dockter, an attorney for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

A hearing was scheduled for Park County district judge Nels Swandal's courtroom today, but was postponed following FWP's request that Swandal be replaced. Swandal will pick his replacement.

FWP and other agencies were scheduled to ask Swandal to throw out a restraining order that bars the state from implementing a policy that is more tolerant of Yellowstone bison in southern Park County.

The new policy was heralded by many people as a huge step for Montana, which has been famously unwelcoming of bison roaming out of the park in search of lower ground during the winter. But the county and stockgrowers say in their lawsuits against the plan that the bison subject property to damage, residents to harm and livestock to disease.

"Large numbers of bison now regularly congregate at school bus stops and other locations, interacting with children, elderly, and other individuals that live in the area to a degree not previously encountered," Park County's lawsuit stated. "These bison have also caused extensive damage to property, and indicated aggression towards landowner animals."

Prior to the policy in question, only 25 bison had been allowed to graze in the area, and only on a small part of land abutting the Yellowstone River. The lawsuits do not address those bison.

Also on Tuesday, three new groups announced they want to have a seat at the table when the cases are heard.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bear Creek Council, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition - all conservation groups - have asked to oppose the lawsuits. If that request is approved, the groups would be present during all the hearings. It would allow them to, for example, file motions and make arguments along with the defendants.

"It lets us participate and raise issues that we think are particularly our perspective," said Mark Pearson, national parks program director for GYC.

Brett Linneweber, Park County attorney, said he wouldn't mind if the conservation groups participated.

"I don't care how many perspectives are present," he said. "The issue flat out isn't a stand on bison themselves, but a stand specifically toward ensuring public health and safety."

The postponed hearing will be held at a later date that has not yet been announced.

Carly Flandro can be reached at 582-2638 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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