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Montana tribes in line for bison permits

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HELENA, Mont. - The Montana Legislature is considering a proposal to give
two state-issued buffalo hunting permits per year to tribes in the state.

Senate Bill 91, sponsored by Sen. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, calls for the
licenses to be awarded to tribes free of charge and before any additional
licenses are issued to kill bison migrating out of Yellowstone National
Park, which Montana shares with neighboring Wyoming.

In its current form, the bill says the bison "must be harvested by tribal
members in accordance with the traditional ceremonies of each tribe." In
addition, it says all parts of the harvested animals "may be possessed and
used by each designated tribe in the manner that the tribe sees fit."

At a Jan. 18 hearing before the Senate Fish and Game Committee, Smith noted
that SB 91 was introduced before the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Commission voted to cancel this year's hunt. Nonetheless, the legislation,
if passed, would be in place for future bison hunting if it occurs.

State-licensed bison hunting has not taken place since 1990, after years of
controversy over shooting the animals as they left the park's boundaries in
search of winter forage. The 2003 Legislature again authorized hunts as
part of a state strategy to manage the federal herd, now estimated at
between 4,000 and 4,300 animals.

Cattle interests have so far won out in the management debate because some
wild bison carry brucellosis, a disease that could cause cows to miscarry
if it is transmitted to livestock. So far, no case of such transmission has
been recorded in the wild, and there is an impasse over allowing the bison
to roam over more Montana winter range outside of the park.

The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission earlier decided to issue 10 buffalo
hunting permits this year, and a drawing was set up to allocate the tags.
But incoming Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed three new members to the
commission, and the reconstituted panel on Jan. 10 voted 4 - 1 to cancel
the hunt.

Schweitzer and the commissioners argue that killing only 10 of the herd
would do nothing to control their population, and that it risked giving the
state another international round of unwanted bad publicity if it wasn't
done right. Heightened controversy about the issue, they reasoned, also
could further restrict the use of hunting as a management tool later.

The next day the commission voted 3 - 2 to move ahead with the drawing with
an eye toward having an expanded hunt next winter.

Other than Smith, no other proponents addressed SB 91. Mike Mease, campaign
coordinator and founder of the Buffalo Field Campaign, an advocacy group,
testified as the only opponent. He noted that multiple tribes in the region
have treaty rights that include hunting. He suggested that there be a
broader discussion before licenses are given to only Montana tribes.

Jeff Hagener, director of the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks,
spoke at the hearing as an informational witness, meaning the agency is not
taking a stand on the bill, at least at this point.

Hagener said SB 91 probably needs some amending, in part to clarify exactly
how the tribal permits might be allocated and how it would be determined
which tribes got permits if only two were issued annually. The committee
has not yet voted on Smith's proposal.