Montana gun group sues BLM over shooting restrictions

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Gun group sues over shooting restrictions intended to protect ferrets.

HELENA (AP) – A state gun-owners’ group is suing the Bureau of Land Management, claiming the agency had no authority to restrict shooting on federal land in an effort to protect the endangered black-footed ferret.

The restrictions, imposed on about 20,000 acres of land within Phillips County in 1999, are intended to halt the shooting of prairie dogs, a staple of the black-footed ferrets’ diet.

In its lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., the Montana Shooting Sports Association argues the BLM violated a number of federal land-use rules when imposing the limits.

“BLM is working on the mistaken assumption that they have authority to regulate firearm use, and that shooting prairie dogs has any long-term effect on their population numbers,” said Gary Marbut of Missoula, president of the gun group. “Both are quite a stretch, which we intend to prove in court.”

Rich Adams, assistant field manager in the BLM’s Malta office, said Tuesday he is comfortable with the agency’s effort to balance public use of the land with the need to protect the ferret. He noted that big-game hunting is still allowed in the area.

However, Adams acknowledged the agency has found itself “between a rock and a hard spot” on the issue.

Prairie dogs are listed as “unregulated wildlife,” so using firearms to shoot them is forbidden under the BLM restrictions.

Sara Folger, conservation director for the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, said the restrictions are a critical tool to help preserve prairie dog populations.

“They’re not like mice; they don’t breed that prolifically,” she said. “With added shooting pressure ... it’s kind of a toss-up as to whether a colony will survive in the first place.”

Federal agencies have been releasing black-footed ferrets in prairie dog villages in Montana and other states in an effort to boost their numbers. The ferrets rely heavily on prairie dogs – both as a food source and for shelter. Ferrets make themselves at home in the tunnels prairie dogs construct.

“We’ve been working a long time to get those ferrets out on the ground,” Folger said.

Marbut has protested the firearms restrictions since they were imposed two years ago. He exchanged letters with BLM officials and approached the Mountain States Legal Foundation after BLM rejected his appeals.

Steve Lechner, senior attorney for the foundation, said the group took the case because the restrictions are “limiting a legitimate use of federal lands.”

The lawsuit claims BLM imposed the restrictions without involving the public, thus violating federal land policy.

It also said the restrictions are improper because they create “critical habitat” for the black-footed ferret. Transplanted ferrets in Phillips County are a “non-essential experimental population,” the lawsuit said. The foundation argued that federal law does not allow creating critical habitat for that type of experimental population of an endangered species.
 

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