BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — State wildlife officials gave initial approval Thursday to a plan to issue elk-kill permits to landowners in parts of southern Montana as part of an effort to reduce the spread of disease to cattle.
Commissioners had agreed not to issue any of the permits last season after two hunting groups filed a lawsuit in May.
Thursday's preliminary action by Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners applies to the 2014-2015 season. It would allow up to 250 elk to be taken by permitted landowners and by hunters during special "dispersal" hunts. The plan also calls for hazing elk in some situations to keep them away from cattle and animals and erecting fences paid for at least in part by the state.
A final vote is expected in October.
The aim is to keep infected elk away from cattle to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis. Ranchers in counties outside Yellowstone National Park are required to vaccinate cattle and periodically test them for exposure to the disease.
They've pushed for more to be done about infected wildlife, but hunters and other conservationists worry about too many elk being removed.
Only seven elk were killed during last year's dispersal hunts. That compares with 2,653 animals harvested during the 2013 regular elk season in hunting districts that are all or partly within the state's designated brucellosis surveillance area, said Quentin Kujala with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
He said the proposed elk management plan was a reasonable response to the disease risk. Cows infected with brucellosis can prematurely abort their young.
"It's not test-and-slaughter, it's not trying to eradicate the disease. It's a measured response," Kujala said.
A lawsuit over the issue from the Skyline Sportsmen's Association and the Anaconda Sportsmen's Club remains pending before state District Judge Mike Menahan in Helena. The suit claims state officials did not adequately review last year's elk-brucellosis management plan.
Glenn Hockett with the Gallatin Wildlife Association told commissioners that such concerns still linger.
"There needs to be a thorough audit and a thorough environmental analysis about the potential consequences of this proposal," he said.