The number of licenses to hunt bison that wander into Montana from Yellowstone National Park this winter will almost triple from last season, state wildlife commissioners decided Thursday.
In June, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission endorsed a tentative plan to authorize 100 licenses, double last season's number. On Thursday they added another 40 at the urging of Commissioner Shane Colton.
The increase will focus on bison cows, making the hunt more of a herd management tool "rather than just tipping them over for trophies," Colton said.
Activists opposed to any hunting of Yellowstone bison said the commission's decision to boost the number of licenses to 140 simply worsens a bad idea.
"If you want a public relations nightmare, I think you're moving in the right direction," said Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign.
The state considers the hunt part of a plan to manage bison that migrate from Yellowstone and may carry the cattle disease brucellosis, which is present in Yellowstone's bison herds.
Some ranchers fear wandering bison will spread the disease to cattle in Montana, where it has eradicated. A state-federal management plan allows for bison that stray to be hazed back into the park, or captured and in some cases shipped to slaughter. Hundreds have been sent to slaughter this year.
In March, Yellowstone officials estimated the park's bison herd at 3,500 animals. In the bison management plan, 3,000 is the target population size.
The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department staff said the hunt's ideal size is not yet known.
"One hundred may be absolutely the right number and it may be that we can work with something higher," said Pat Flowers, the state agency's regional supervisor in Bozeman.
The hunt will take place in two hunting districts, one in the Gardiner basin near the park's northern entrance, and the other in the West Yellowstone area near the park's western entrance. Hunters will be licensed for a specific district. Each has a bison quota, and specified periods for hunting. Overall the season will run from Nov. 15 to Feb. 15.
Licenses will cost $125 for Montana residents and $750 for nonresidents. Of the 140 permits, 16 will be allocated to American Indian tribes at no charge, said Tom Palmer, a spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Bison management in Montana, and particularly the notion of hunting the shaggy animal, has long drawn protests from around the country and beyond. That rankles some commissioners.
"I don't care what somebody thinks in New York City," said Commissioner John Brenden. "I care what Montanans think."
The Buffalo Field Campaign's Stephany Seay replied the Yellowstone animals are the nation's last wild herd of bison and "they don't belong just to people in Montana," but to people in New York as well.
Her group maintains that hunting Yellowstone bison is neither scientifically sound nor ethical. Before there is hunting, bison should be given time to recover as a wildlife species, Seay said. She also said that because Yellowstone's bison are accustomed to park tourists, they are less likely to run from hunters.