HELENA (AP) - Opponents of a proposed bison hunt are predicting a national storm of controversy if Montana moves ahead with plans to let hunters kill the animals that wander outside Yellowstone National Park.
Although state officials say they'll take steps to avoid such backlash, some critics say they're ready for a long fight.
The 2003 Legislature passed the contentious measure authorizing a bison hunt in Montana. Gov. Judy Martz signed it into law in early May.
The proposal next goes to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, which could take up the issue by this fall after a state environmental review, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department Director Jeff Hagener said.
Hagener, who sits on the wildlife commission, said earlier that he believed hunters could be stalking the shaggy animals by 2004. But he now thinks that 2005 would likely be the earliest a season could start.
Jim Coefield, a board member with the Buffalo Field Campaign, which opposes the bison hunt, said Hagener's new estimate is still too optimistic. Coefield said public comment about the plan - and likely court challenges - will drag the battle out much longer.
"I don't see a resolution on this issue for three or four years," Coefield said.
But if the state finally does launch a bison hunt, Coefield and other critics said public outcry is inevitable.
During the Legislature, lawmakers and others raised fears of a replay of bison hunts that ended amid heavy criticism in the early 1990s.
Those hunts, prompted by fears bison might spread brucellosis to cattle, featured state game officials leading hunters directly to bison. Subsequent video footage of animals being killed ignited such controversy that the state scrapped the practice.
Hagener tried to allay concerns of a repeat during the session by calling for a different kind of hunt, one in which state officials would not serve as guides and hunters would be required to track the animals on foot, away from roadways.
As the plan moves ahead, Hagener acknowledges that support in his agency for a bison hunt is mixed.
"The department supports hunting as a way to manage wildlife and a way to provide sportsmen the opportunity to hunt," he said. "The department is not supportive of the situations we've had in the past."
After the state scrapped the bison hunts of the early 1990s, it joined with federal agencies to develop an alternative plan for managing bison that wander from Yellowstone. That plan is intended to ensure bison and cattle do not come in contact with each other.
Many of the park's bison are believed to carry brucellosis, and ranchers fear they could spread it to cattle, causing the animals to abort their calves.
Under the current management plan, bison that leave Yellowstone and can't be herded back in are captured and tested for brucellosis. Animals that test positive are sent to slaughter.
If the size of the park herd grows beyond 3,000, the plan allows officials to capture and kill bison that leave the park without testing them first.
Some groups, including the Buffalo Field Campaign, have been critical of that management plan, contending it treats the bison more as livestock than as wild animals that should be allowed to wander freely.
However, they say bison have become so accustomed to humans that allowing them to be hunted as a wild animal at this point would be unfair as well.
"We are talking about animals who have become accustomed to being around people," said Andrea Lococo of the Fund for Animals. "We do not believe that shooting Yellowstone bison can in any way be characterized as a fair-chase hunt."
"It's a very different thing to shoot a buffalo than an elk, and perhaps over time they would learn a fear of humans. But for now it's kind of like shooting fish in a bucket," added Ted Fellman of the Buffalo Field Campaign. "I don't think there's any way around a black eye for the state of Montana."
Larry Copenhaver, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said he fears hunters will become the scapegoats if criticism erupts over a hunt.
But Hagener said there is no guarantee the commission will eventually approve a bison hunt. He notes that the board recently rejected the agency's attempt to open a game preserve near Yellowstone for limited elk hunting.
"I guess there's also a bit of a gun shyness" about the bison hunt in the department, he said. "Everyone wants to avoid and stay away from that (controversy) because that was a bad name for hunters and the state of Montana in general."
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