SALMON, Idaho, Sep 15 (Reuters) For the first time in nearly a decade, hunters today begin tracking and killing buffalo on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where federal wildlife managers plan to cut the herd from 1,200 to 500 over the next five years.
US Fish and Wildlife Service officials say buffalo at the refuge, home to one of the nation's largest free-roaming herds of the symbol of the American West, must be killed because of overgrazing and because they carry diseases that could be transmitted to domestic livestock.
The hunt aims to cull 300 buffalo -- also called bison -- by December.
The move has raised concern in the upscale community of Jackson, where the lure of the jagged peaks of the Teton Range and wildlife-watching draw tens of thousands of tourists each year. It also has alarmed animal groups, which say shooting creatures accustomed to humans is far from sporting.
''Hunting these bison is like hunting parked cars,'' said Jonathan Lovvorn, a vice president of the US Humane Society and attorney with the Fund for Animals.
Buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction in the United States' westward expansion, by the late 1880s leaving only a few hundred of the huge animals that had numbered more than 60 million and sustained the Great Plains Indians.
The Fund for Animals was behind a 1998 lawsuit that suspended a plan to thin the herd significantly through hunting, a moratorium lifted last month by a federal judge. While the refuge approved limited hunting of bison in the years before the lawsuit, no hunt in its history has approximated the magnitude of the season that starts today.
COMPETITION FOR FORAGE The refuge, which sprawls across 25,000 acres of grasslands, aspen groves and lodgepole pine stands, was established in 1912 at the urging of Jackson Hole residents concerned about the wildlife pushed from their winter range by the resort town's settlement.
For decades, wildlife managers have sought to lessen the competition in the winter for forage among wild animals and cattle by feeding elk at the refuge, a practice that began attracting buffalo in 1980 and helped their population soar.
The bison hunt on the refuge comes as species in the American West are vying for food sources made scarce by months of fire, years of drought and by the rapid development of lands that once harbored wildlife.
Like the visitors who throng to Jackson Hole each year, Wyoming wildlife officials say they value the bison. ''We love them too - but in limited numbers,'' said Wyoming Game and Fish's Barb Long.
Eric Cole, biologist with the National Elk Refuge, said wildlife managers are not oblivious to the plight of the bison and to the uproar that follows many wildlife management decisions.
''It's really impossible to keep all segments of the public happy with such controversial issues at hand,'' he said. ''We're having more conflicts about land uses - between habitat and development - and the pressure on the ecosystem is all coming to a head because of different visions of the West.'' REUTERS GT PM1850