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Bison skull selected for state quarter
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, right, talks to Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger about the beauty in the simplicity of the design for the Montana quarter during a news conference in his reception room at the Capitol in Helena Thursday. Circulation of the new coin is planned for early 2007.

HELENA — The Montana 25-cent piece will feature a bison skull, first popularized by Montana artist Charlie Russell, flanked by the image of mountains smoothing into the high plains and the words "Big Sky Country."

Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday announced the design, which won out from a field of four designs in a statewide vote.

The quarter design, which was not Schweitzer's personal favorite, will be on quarters early next year, said Sarah Elliott, the governor's spokeswoman.

Big Sky feel

"This is distinctly Montana," Schweitzer said at a news conference. "Montana has spoken, and I think we have a great quarter."

The governor's office received hundreds of ideas from throughout the state, Elliott said. Most dealt with the state's natural beauty in some way, although a few were funny and some a bit profane.

One featured a knobby-tired, three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle charging up a mountain. Another featured a Pork Chop John sandwich — a breaded, fried pork sirloin on a bun invented in Butte by John Burklund in 1924.

Schweitzer said part of the challenge in picking the right design for Montana was finding an image that captured the state's diverse history, topography and cultures. The image had to reflect the state's spirit, he said, but not be so crowded that the image isn't "coinable," Schweitzer said, borrowing a term from the U.S. Mint.

The design is part of the Mint's 10-year, 50-state quarter program. Begun in 1999, the Mint is honoring every state in the nation with each state's own quarter design.

Treasury OKs designs

Governors of each state decide how the design for their state is chosen, according to the Mint. The secretary of the U.S. Treasury signs off on all designs.

State quarters are introduced in the same chronological order as the states became part of the union. Montana, which became a state in 1889, is among the later quarters (41st).

In Montana, Schweitzer took ideas submitted from throughout the state. The ideas went to a state panel, which included the governor; Arnie Olsen, former head of the Montana Historical Society; and Gary Marks, a Whitefish coin collector. The committee winnowed the ideas down to four. Those four designs then went to a popular vote.

The other designs were a scene of a river winding out of the mountains, a massive bull elk standing on the prairie beneath the mountains, and the outline of the state of Montana with the scene of the sun rising over the prairie.

About 30,000 votes were cast, with the bison skull netting 34 percent of the vote.

Schweitzer said adoption of the skull design wasn't without its snags.

On a single night of voting, the state logged more than 20,000 votes for the design from one Bozeman computer. Those votes were tossed out, Schweitzer said, and the parents of the kid who made the votes got a call from the state.

"He had some explaining to do at the kitchen table the next morning," Schweitzer said.

The second hurdle came when the governor's mom said she really didn't like the bison design — and jokingly threatened to disinvite the governor to Christmas dinner if he picked it.

"My mom, she's a person of the prairie," Schweitzer said, explaining his mother's preference for the "high plains at sunrise" design.

The bison skull is a unique and longstanding symbol of the state, Olsen said. The symbol is on the state's license plate design and is the symbol of the Montana Historical Society.

Montana cowboy and artist Charlie Russell used the symbol when he signed his paintings — all of which were completed at his log cabin studio in Great Falls.

Schweitzer and others referred to the design as the "Charlie Russell skull," although Russell's true skull drawing is trademarked by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls.

Marks said that while it's impossible to know how many Montana quarters will end up in circulation, he estimated that about 500 million will be made at the mint in Denver.

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