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Controversy Stalks Hunters in Montana's Bison Season

Thirty to sixty million bison, also known as buffalo, once roamed North America. Today, nearly 5,000 descendents of those great herds are protected in Yellowstone National Park. But that protection ends at the park border.

Over the years, the state of Montana has tried different approaches to dealing with stray animals. Now, for the first time in 15 years, it is allowing hunters to shoot Yellowstone bison that migrate out of the park.

The massive creatures are hunted without much fanfare in five other western states, but the Yellowstone herd is so famous that Montana's hunt - which runs through mid-February - has attracted attention from around the world. And the hunters have become the hunted.

One of the things Rick Jaqueth likes most about hunting is getting away from people. But his first day of bison hunting is anything but solitary. A network television news crew trails behind him, cameras rolling, as he scouts the sage-covered foothills just north of Yellowstone National Park. They put a microphone on his jacket and yell instructions, telling him to switch sides or walk slower.

Locating the bison isn't difficult. A couple dozen graze in small groups near the roads and meander through the public campground. But the hunter is reluctant to take aim. "It's a little too like shooting a cow in a pasture," he explains, adding, "and then having media and the whole parade, you know. I didn't want to become the grand marshal of the media parade to the buffalo killing fields."

And it's not just the media that's trying to catch Mr. Jaqueth's kill on videotape. Volunteers with the Buffalo Field Campaign, who oppose a hunt on the Yellowstone bison herd, are also on hand to document and publicize it. Coordinator Mike Mease says, "We are watching over all the buffalo that are outside the safety of Yellowstone National Park."

He says the bison deserve a safe haven on public lands in Montana. For years, the state has been chasing stray animals back into the park, or capturing and sometimes sending them to slaughter. That's because the bison carry brucellosis, and the state is afraid they might infect livestock, hurting Montana's important cattle industry.

The Buffalo Field Campaign isn't opposed to a bison hunt, but first, Mr. Mease says, the state should agree to let the animals roam outside the park for more than just a limited three-month hunting season. "None of this land is now bison friendly. It's just another way of killing them that's not going to solve the brucellosis problem."

It was fears about brucellosis that led to Montana's last organized hunt, which turned into a public relations nightmare. Back in the 1980s, game wardens escorted hunters to any animals that crossed park boundary, then watched as they were shot.

Footage of that spectacle was aired around the world and, says Melissa Frost of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, it didn't play well. "We suffered from the media attention and in particular we were roundly criticized for it not being a true hunt. And in the sense that we guided hunters in the field, we called them up, and we took them to a bison," she admits. "No, that wasn't a true hunt."

This year's hunt has been redesigned to give the bison a fighting chance. A maximum of 48 hunters will pursue the animals, which are allowed to wander on thousands of hectares outside the park during the hunting season.

Given that the bison are usually shot with cameras, not rifles, they don't yet have a reason to fear people. So officials acknowledge that the hunt might not be much of a challenge this year. But like other wildlife, Ms. Frost says, bison should eventually become more wary of humans. She calls this year's hunt "a first step in managing bison in Montana like any other species, for making a place for wild bison in Montana."

But in the meantime, the attention focused on these beloved icons of the West is making Rick Jaqueth's life miserable. The hunter spends two days driving past bison, trying to elude the dogged activists who keep tailing him. "That's the sport of it," he laughs, "to shoot one without being filmed by the Buffalo Field Campaign! But I don't know that that's going to be feasible because we're running out of time."

So on Day Three, Mr. Jaqueth finally surrenders. Accompanied by five Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers, three friends and two journalists, he hikes several hundred meters from the road, where three bull bison are grazing peacefully. Saying "I just want to make a clean shot," he aims, and, as the video cameras roll, pulls the trigger.

The shot is good, but the bison is tough. It staggers for a few minutes and it's not until he takes a second shot that the animal lies down to die. Afterwards, Mr. Jaqueth turns to the bison activists, asking with a resigned air, "You just had to film that, didn't you gentlemen?"

But Mike Mease congratulates him on his good shooting. Together, everyone admires the bull, and Rick Jaqueth sums up his hunting experience: "Bizarre. Word of the day. Bizarre."

Then the real work begins: cutting up and packing out the enormous buffalo, all 900 kilos of him. That takes ten hours, and the job might have lasted even longer if a couple of the Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers hadn't helped. They were delighted when the hunter gave them a cut of bison meat and two hooves.