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Montana approves return of bison hunt

By Sarah R. Craig
Associated Press — Oct. 13, 2004

HELENA, Mont. — Montana's wildlife commission voted Thursday to resume bison hunting, allowing up to 25 animals to be killed next year if they leave Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana.

The first hunt, tentatively set to begin in January, would be the first time in more than a decade that the animals were legally hunted in Montana. The hunts were canceled in 1991 following a firestorm of controversy over shooting of the animals as they leave Yellowstone each winter in search of forage.

The state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission voted 3-2 to hold a hunt from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15, 2005. State game officials had earlier recommended just five permits be issued for the first abbreviated season, but the commission voted Thursday to increase that to 25. A final vote on details of next year's hunt is scheduled for December.

Future hunts would run from Nov. 15 through Feb. 15, with the number of permits varying each year. Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff told the commission they preferred approaching the hunt conservatively, in hopes of avoiding the conflicts and national black eye that came with the state's previous public hunts.

"Given that it's a pilot effort, we think a very few number of permits is the way to go," said Pat Flowers, a regional supervisor for the agency.

But commissioners said 25 was conservative enough. Commissioner John Brenden of Scobey said he would like to eventually see that increase to 250 or more eventually, and the controversy with previous bison hunts should not dictate current action.

"I personally do not care if somebody from New York City doesn't like our hunting," Brenden said. "I personally think this idea for one to 25 permits is ludicrous. This isn't going to make a dent on an elephant's posterior to managing the buffalo problem."

Last year, state lawmakers passed a measure giving the commission authority to establish a hunt.

Advocates say bison that leave the park threaten the health of Montana cattle. Bison in the park carry the disease brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort, and ranchers fear bison can pass the disease to their herds, although that possibility has not been documented.

Opponents urged the commission to postpone the hunt for at least a year.

"It seems like we're treating wild bison like a liability, and they're a tremendous asset," said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. "Please don't rush forward with this."

Larry Copenhaver with the Montana Wildlife Federation agreed, saying his group supports a bison hunt but not under the current plan, which calls for hunting bison outside of areas where the animals now are hazed by state and federal officials in an effort to return them to the park.

Those that cannot be coaxed or herded back into the park are captured and tested for brucellosis. Those that test positive are slaughtered.

Flowers said the department took into account numerous public concerns in arriving at its decision. He acknowledged, however, that the majority of public responses to the environmental assessment opposed the approved hunt.

Unlike previous bison hunts, the latest plan does not call for game wardens to accompany hunters.

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