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Bison that blunder over the line from Yellowstone National Park are fair game for hunters again this winter, but park officials expect the harvest to be smaller than the 500 taken last season.

Just how many of the big, furry, dumb beasts will wander outside the park boundaries to graze depends on how severe the winter is and how pinched the food supply within the park, officials say. Hunters aren't allowed to shoot buffalo in the park.But statements by a leading zoologist have added weight to the state's contention that the slaughter of wandering bison is necessary to prevent the spread of brucellosis among Montana cattle herds, despite the outrage such killings may produce.

Dr. Don Davis, a Texas A&M University specialist in the highly infectious bacterial disease, said previous claims by park officials that the bison bug could not be transmitted to cattle have proven false.

"Montana has spent in excess of $260 million of federal and state money to rid the domestic livestock of brucellosis," Davis said. "So you can see why you're not real crazy to get it back again."

Davis, scientific adviser to a committee on brucellosis in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, said the National Park Service could do more to eradicate brucellosis in the Yellowstone herds by isolating and slaughtering infected bison.

But that would mean killing the animals on park property, and that isn't going to happen, he said.

"We're talking big-time political and economic concessions if they were to do that," Davis said.

The Park Service says that unless scientists can prove brucellosis was not in the park when Yellowstone was created in 1872, it may classify the bacteria as a "native species." Park policy forbids eradication of any native species.

Eradicating brucellosis from the buffalo herd could prove useless if the organism is native to the area and simply reinfects the animals, said Yellowstone spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo. And the buffalo would no longer be a wild, free-roaming species if they were treated like domestic cattle, she said.

Brucellosis, also called Bang's disease, causes domestic cattle to lose their calves. It can cause undulant fever - characterized by recurring fever and aching joints - in humans who get it through unpasteurized milk or direct contact with infected animals. It generally can't be transmitted through meat.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has been trying for decades to eliminate the disease from commercial herds. So far, USDA says, 27 states are free of brucellosis, with the disease most prevalent in the South. Brucellosis was eradicated from Montana cattle in 1984.

Last year, due to food shortages caused by the massive 1988 forest fires and an ensuing harsh winter, hundreds of hungry bison wandered north onto Montana cattle ranches.

Hunters were called in to snag strays, and a record 569 bison were killed. Of these about half were found to be infected with brucellosis. Park officials counted 418 buffalo in the northern herd last week and estimate a park total of about 2,000 animals in the park's three major herds.