updated 12/16/2004 8:38:11 PM ET 2004-12-17T01:38:11

The hunting of bison that wander from Yellowstone National Park in search of winter forage will resume next month, more than a decade after the practice was canceled amid a barrage of protests from around the country.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved a limited hunting season for the animals Thursday. The 4-1 vote authorized 10 bison hunting licenses to be issued between Jan. 15 and Feb. 15 in an area north of the park where migration is most likely as snow deepens in the park.

Critics told commissioners it is the wrong time to resume hunting of bison and suggested more study.

Stephany Seay, a member of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a group that opposes the hunt, said Yellowstone bison are so acclimated to tourists that they do not offer a “fair-chase hunt.”

Josh Osher, another member of the bison-protection group, said the public is not ready to support resumption of a hunt outside Yellowstone. He urged delaying action until Gov.-elect Brian Schweitzer takes office next month and appoints three new members of the five-member commission.

But advocates of a hunt said allowing 10 bison to be shot, from a population of more than 4,200, will not affect survival of the herd or ignite the protests that greeted the previous hunt. Commission members, noting the 2003 Legislature authorized the hunt, said it is a necessary first step toward eventually managing bison as a game animal as the Yellowstone herd continues to grow.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said Chairman Dan Walker. “It’s important that we go about our work and establish this hunting opportunity.”

Several members of the Buffalo Field Campaign peacefully protested Thursday outside the agency’s headquarters.

The argument over hunting Yellowstone bison peaked in 1990 when animal-rights protesters confronted hunters as they took aim at the animals grazing outside the park. Hunters were escorted by game wardens to shoot bison at close range.

The hunting was justified as a way to control disease. Ranchers fear the bison will transmit brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort, although critics say the risk has not been proven.

The new hunt will be more conventional, without warden escorts and prearranged hunting excursions. The 10 licenses will be awarded through a lottery.

The bulk of the animals leaving the park are shooed back in or captured. Captured animals are tested for brucellosis and infected bison are sent to slaughter.

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