MONTANA

A gun owners' group is trying to shoot down a ban on prairie dog hunting, imposed by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve habitat for the endangered black-footed ferret.

The Montana Shooting Sports Association is frustrated by what it sees as a violation of the right to bear arms. "What part of 'shall not be infringed' don't they understand?" says president Gary Marbut.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the association against the Bureau last September, but the case centers on more than the Second Amendment. In 1999, when the Bureau closed 20,000 acres of public land in north-central Montana to prairie dog hunting, it didn't adhere to the Endangered Species Act, says attorney Steve Lechner, or gather public input. Because the ferret is a "nonessential experimental population," he says, the Bureau does not have authority to protect habitat for it.

But critics say that years of scientific research and public comment have gone into the plan for managing prairie dogs and ferrets. "The black-footed ferret is arguably the most endangered species in the Lower 48 states," says Sara Folger of the Predator Conservation Alliance. "The Bureau's ban is well within its legal authority."

While the lawsuit awaits its day in court, the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission has reasserted its authority to manage prairie dogs, banning prairie dog shooting on federal lands in central and eastern Montana from March to May, when the animals rear their young.