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Alberta and Ontario feedlots began sending cattle to U.S. slaughterhouses this week, but ranchers say until legal proceedings on the possible ban of Canadian beef are finished, they will not be able to relax.

EDMONTON - A Montana judge has delayed indefinitely a court hearing that could have reimposed a U.S. ban on Canadian cattle, and announced he may cancel it altogether.

The news marked another victory for Canadian ranchers, who this week celebrated the first cattle truckloads to head south in two years, but gravely feared the honeymoon period could soon end.

Judge Richard Cebull was supposed to hear protectionist ranch group R-CALF's bid for a permanent injunction against cattle imports on July 27.

However, legal experts have termed that move a longshot after the first injunction Judge Cebull imposed in March was overturned by a federal appeals court last week, effectively reopening the border for younger bovines.

Because the higher court has not yet issued its written explanation of the ruling, the next hearing is "vacated until further notice," Judge Cebull wrote yesterday in an order.

"After receipt of the Court of Appeals' opinion, this court will determine whether further hearings are necessary."

It is the first time Judge Cebull raised the possibility that R-CALF's next chance to stop trade will be scrapped, and shows he is willing to listen to what the higher court says.

"It's a positive development, but we want to see what the reasoning is behind it, too," Alberta Agriculture Minister Doug Horner said.

The Bush administration had initially planned to ease its two-year-old trade ban last March, but was blocked when Judge Cebull agreed with R-CALF's insistence that Canadian cattle had high risk of mad cow disease.

However, last week the three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Cebull's first decision the day after hearing arguments, a signal it could do the same on a second injunction.

Alberta and Ontario feedlots began sending cattle to U.S. slaughterhouses on Monday, and have continued doing so on a steady basis all week -- something they've been banned from doing entirely since May, 2003, when Washington blocked trade after a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was found in Alberta.

For now, beef producers can continue exports far into the visible future, without fear a judge will stop them.

The move added to the already-raised confidence of an industry that has lost $7-billion, but industry leaders admitted the legal struggles haven't ended yet.

"We're moving cattle with the cloud hanging over our heads this time," said Darcy Davis, an Acme, Alta., rancher and chairman of Alberta Beef Producers.

"We're not sitting still. It's a lot better."

Their opponents on the other side of the border vowed yesterday to press ahead with the fight.

"R-CALF USA looks forward to the written opinion of the Ninth Circuit and is prepared to present its case to the court soon after that opinion is issued," Bill Bullard, the group's CEO, said in a statement.

With the latest revelation that the July 27 court date is off, three things may happen, said University of Pittsburgh legal expert Arthur Hellman.

Judge Cebull could reschedule the hearing once he gets the appeals judges' ruling, refuse to hear R-CALF's case again, or ask both the USDA and R-CALF to submit written submissions while he ponders if an oral hearing is still necessary.

The higher court judges' legal opinion, if it argues there are no grounds to reinstate the cattle ban, would greatly restrict Judge Cebull, Mr. Hellman said.

"They cut the legs out from under any possible basis for a permanent injunction," he said.

John Masswohl of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association hailed the court's latest move, but worried that it will give extra time for the U.S. ranchers to hone their legal stance.

The group has yet to rule out taking its original case to the Supreme Court.

"You still got to keep in the back of your mind that it gives R-CALF an opportunity, gives them an angle," Mr. Masswohl said.

"We'd like to get that shut down, so we won't have to still be thinking."

"I'm sure he's thinking the same thing, when you have that kind of a strong decision that quickly."CW Global Communications Corp.