HELENA – Montana’s wildlife commission on Monday canceled what would have been the state’s first bison hunt in more than a decade.
The monthlong hunt was set to begin Saturday.
The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission’s 4-1 vote came less than a week after new Gov. Brian Schweitzer expressed strong misgivings about the hunt and the potential bad publicity he believed it would bring to the state.
While it canceled this year’s hunt, the commission did endorse plans for a three-month bison hunt next season, tentatively set to start Nov. 15.
The hunting of bison that wander from Yellowstone National Park each winter was canceled in 1991 following a barrage of protests and bad publicity. But the 2003 Legislature authorized resumption of bison hunting as an additional tool for controlling the animals that leave the park each winter in search of forage.
Many bison in the park carry the disease brucellosis, which can cause cattle to abort. Montana ranchers fear the bison will spread the disease to their herds, although there has not been a documented case of that occurring in the wild.
About 8,300 people applied for 10 hunting licenses that were to be issued through a drawing. The commission at first agreed to return about $25,000 in fees those people paid to be eligible for the drawing, but then decided to hold another meeting today to consider using those applications for a drawing for the planned 2005-‘06 hunt.
Commission members said Monday they were not opposed to hunting bison, but preferred a longer season and a larger area for hunting the animals to improve the chances for a fair-chase hunt and avoid congestion of hunters in the area north of the park where the bison are expected to gather.
Commissioners insisted they were not giving into threats of boycotts and protests, but want to avoid going ahead with a season that will give the state a public relations black eye and set back long-term efforts to establish hunting as a viable option for helping manage bison.
“I worry that this start may actually be a quick finish to bison hunting,” said Commissioner Shane Colton of Billings.
John Brenden, commissioner from Scobey and the lone opponent of canceling the hunt, chastised fellow members for what he said was surrendering to pressure from out-of-state critics.
“If you succumb to blackmail, you’d just as well die,” he said.
While acknowledging that killing 10 bison will do nothing to stem the growing size of the Yellowstone herd, “It’s a start,” Brenden said. “It’s about time we started something.”
But waiting until next season for a bison hunt will give the state time to put pressure on Yellowstone officials to do more about eliminating disease in its bison herd, Commission Chairman Steve Doherty countered.
Several sportsmen’s groups supported canceling this year’s hunt, telling the commission that the state should first establish a free-roaming bison herd over a wide area outside the park that would ensure fair-chase hunting.
They also said the Department of Livestock should no longer be involved in the management of the animals and the Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks should be allowed to manage bison like any other big game animal.
But others wanted the hunt to proceed.
Harmon Ranney, of Helena, who said he was one of the more than 8,000 who applied for a bison license, urged the commission to do what lawmakers wanted when they authorized revival of bison hunting.
“This action goes against the will of the Legislature,” he said.
Steve Pilcher, executive vice president for the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said his group has supported the hunt and any move to cancel it should be accompanied by a commitment from the state to force the federal government to do something about the diseased Yellowstone herd.
Josh Osher, spokesman for the Buffalo Field Campaign conservation group, called the commission decision “the right move to make for the future of bison restoration in Montana.”
His organization has been at the forefront of organizing opposition to the hunt, but has said it would support one after a free-ranging herd is established in the state.
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