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Nez Perce plan hunt

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By Matthew Brown -- Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Nez Perce tribal leaders said Jan. 19 they intend to sharply expand their bison hunt outside of Yellowstone Park this winter, harvesting up to 70 animals.

Now in its second year, the hunt is allowed under an 1855 treaty between the Lapwai, Idaho-based tribe and the federal government. Only six bison were taken last year during a limited ''youth hunt.'' The hunt now is being opened to all Nez Perce members.

''We definitely want to make sure their hunts are successful and tribal members can take advantage of this ability to go out there and hunt, much like our ancestors had done years in the past,'' said Joseph Oatman, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe Fish and Wildlife Commission. ''We want to re-establish that relationship with the buffalo.''

Four bison have been taken so far this season, which began earlier in January.

Additionally, five permits to take elk have been issued by the tribal commission, and Nez Perce Chairman Rebecca Miles sent a letter to state officials Jan. 9 saying moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and antelope also might be taken. That sparked concern among state wildlife officials that the tribal hunt could undermine Montana's effort to manage those big-game animals.

But Oatman said the harvest of other species is on hold pending discussions with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks over how many can be killed without impacting those species' populations. He said it is possible none will be taken this year.

''We don't want to issue any sort of season that could result in serious harm or detriment to a species population level,'' he said.

After meeting with Oatman and other tribal officials on Jan. 18, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener said his initial concerns about the other species had been mollified.

''The tribe is very sensitive to issues we have regarding harvest, particularly regarding other game, species beside the bison,'' he said.

The state issued 140 bison permits to Montana hunters this year.

Representatives of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a West Yellowstone group that has fought against the state-sponsored hunt, said an exception should be made for the Nez Perce.

''We're the ones that hunted these animals almost to extinction,'' said campaign founder Mike Mease. ''We don't agree that the buffalo should be hunted in this way, but we agree with the Nez Perce's right to get back in touch'' with their history.