HELENA — Montana officials gave their initial approval Thursday to a plan that would let hunters kill bison that stray beyond designated areas north of Yellowstone National Park and from the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
The plan is to remove bison that wander outside of defined "tolerance areas" beyond the park and where wild Yellowstone bison have been slated for transfer, such as the two northeastern Montana reservations.
The proposal by Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency comes as state officials seek to ease the stiff resistance to bison being allowed to roam in more parts of the state. FWP Director Joe Maurier said the tolerance areas recently have been enlarged by 75,000 acres into the Hebgen basin north of Yellowstone.
"We've been working hard to find more tolerance for bison in Montana," Maurier said. "Essentially what we've done is move the line, and we are trying to figure out how we manage bison past that line."
Neighboring farmers and ranchers fear the bison will spread disease and destroy their property.
A lawsuit filed last week in state court by property rights groups and landowners aims to block the relocation of 68 Yellowstone bison to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap, which the FWP approved in December. Two other lawsuits are pending over bison in the Hebgen basin, where the animals are being allowed to wander as they seek food at lower elevations in the winter.
The commission voted 4-1 to tentatively approve the hunting measure, which now goes out for public comment before a final vote in February.
Commissioner Ron Moody, who voted against the plan, said he believes state regulators are improperly using hunters to kill wildlife that cross a containment line. At that point, an animal ceases to be game and becomes vermin, and that does not fit the concept of a fair hunt, he said.
"A moral onus falls on the people who are slaughtering bison who stray over a line. I want that moral onus to fall where it belongs and not where it shouldn't belong, which is on this thing that we call fair-chase hunting," Moody said.
Stephany Seay, representing the advocacy group Buffalo Field Campaign, said the agency should consider the bison's wildlife status in Montana instead of proposing to kill more of the animals.
"You can't just keep killing wildlife and confining wildlife because their presence is a minor inconvenience to a few. I think we need to learn how to coexist in a more meaningful way and a more sustainable way," she said.
Maurier said the agency is open to discussion and any ideas that people may have on managing the bison that wander beyond those designated areas.