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By Becky Bohrer
Associated Press — July 12, 2005
BILLINGS — Six months after canceling a planned bison hunt because of concerns about bad publicity, Montana's wildlife commission has approved a revised hunt of bison that leave Yellowstone National Park, beginning this fall.

The hunt will allow up to 50 bison to be killed over a three-month period in southern Montana, a spokesman for the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said Friday.

In January, the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission canceled an abbreviated hunt — which would have been the state's first for bison in over a decade — after Gov. Brian Schweitzer expressed concern about potential damage to the state's reputation.

Tom Palmer, a department spokesman, said the commission gave tentative approval on Thursday to selling 25 either-sex bison licenses for use between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15, 2006, and another 25 licenses for use from Jan. 16 to Feb. 15. The total includes one bison allocated to each of the state's eight Indian tribes during each of those periods, he said.

The proposal would also expand the hunting area by about 34,000 acres, including lands near West Yellowstone and the park's western boundary, said Pat Flowers, a regional supervisor with the department. The monthlong hunt scrapped last winter involved about 124,000 acres, including along the northern border and in the upper Gallatin. But bison aren't as likely to be found in the upper Gallatin, he said.

"The acreage in itself doesn't tell the story," Flowers said. "It's in the acreage that bison use."

Officials plan to take public comment on the plan.

Flowers said the agency is committed to ensuring a fair chase hunt and believes that steps proposed, such as expanding the area and limiting and spreading out the number of hunters, helps achieve that.

"We're as well positioned as we can be to offer a legitimate hunt," he said.

Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his group's board still must review the commission's proposal. But he believes it will support the plan. Having two time periods and fewer hunters on the ground at one time are positives, he said.

"What we would really like to see is for this to become a regular season to help manage the bison that come into Montana," he said.

But Mike Mease, coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group that opposes state bison management efforts, said allowing the hunt, without allowing bison from the park to roam freely in the state, would be a "huge liability and a joke."

During winter, bison often leave the park in search of food. This is a concern to state livestock officials and ranchers, who fear the bison will transmit brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a disease that infects the Yellowstone herd; it can cause cows to abort. Bison defenders argue that there has not been a documented case of such transmission in the wild.

A joint state-federal bison management plan allows for bison that leave the park to be hazed or captured and tested for brucellosis. Bison that test positive are sent to slaughter.

Flowers said state livestock officials wouldn't haze wandering bison in the West Yellowstone area during the hunting season, except in "extreme circumstances," such as the mass exodus of bison from the park.

In some areas, a 24-hour hunting closure could be imposed, if necessary, to haze or even capture bison, state veterinarian Tom Linfield said.

Mease said he would guide news cameras to the area to document the killing if the hunt goes forward.

"If they are ready to show the world how they're regularly disrespecting bison out there, go ahead," he said.

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