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Livestock officials say Canada has agreed to open its borders to Montana cattle this summer — with restrictions — in a move seen by some as a step toward freer trade.

The border is closed to cattle shipments from April through September over fears of spreading the viral disease bluetongue and anaplasmosis to Canadian cattle, which officials said are considered free of the diseases.

Anaplasmosis is caused by a blood parasite and can cause anemia or death. It can be transmitted by ticks, biting flies and mosquitoes.

But officials say new tests — the results of which were discussed at a regional conference on livestock health this week — suggest a low prevalence of the diseases in Montana cattle. Nearly 3,700 head were tested throughout the fall and winter. The findings were similar to tests conducted last year, said Joyce Van Donkersgoed, a veterinarian who works with the Alberta Cattle Feeders' Association and helped Montana livestock officials with the testing.

"The risk from Montana is low and it would be reasonable to open the border," she said, adding: "We all have a common goal — to open the border — and to use science toward doing this."

In what officials said was an effort to reduce the threat of the disease, the Canadian government has limited movement of Montana cattle to Canadian feedlots to a six-month period — from October through March, when officials say the risk for transmission of the diseases is considered low.

The tests came in the midst of a three-year study involving the Alberta Cattle Feeders' Association, the state Department of Livestock and the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Officials hope the results of the study, combined with ongoing research being done in Montana and Canada, will help convince Canadian officials that future testing for the diseases is not necessary and that year-round trade should be an option.

The pilot program, which Van Donkersgoed said could get started by August, would allow ranchers in Montana and North Dakota to send their cattle to three "terminal," or quarantined, feedlots in Alberta. The project was approved by Canadian government officials, she said, and will involve testing.

Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said time will tell if there is much of a market for cattle during the warmer months. But he said his group has long been pushing for a more open border.

"More than anything, I think it was just a thorn in the U.S. cattle producers' side, for (Canada) to limit cattle that could move north — and this isn't related to the health standpoint — but to still see Canadian cattle move down for slaughter," he said.

That bothers Wade Moser, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association. Though his state sends "very few" cattle to Canadian feedlots, he said he considers this latest pilot project "a joke."

"It's just their tactic of keeping our cattle out," he said. North Dakota's deputy state veterinarian said the diseases have not been a problem in that state.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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