Montana's controversial bison hunt is providing a launching point for an anti-hunting campaign by the national Fund for Animals, the fund's national director says.

"Our long-term goal is to end recreational killing of wildlife," said Wayne Pacelle.Because of the public's affinity for bison, Pacelle said, Montana's program to kill the animals presents the fund with an opportunity - and the organization plans to make the most of it.

The fund is distributing a commercial showing the killing of bison near Yellowstone's northern boundary. Titled "Just For The Sport Of It," it depicts the killing of bison to the historic tune "Home on the Range."

When the song reaches the line, "where the buffalo roam," the commercial shows pictures of the 1988-89 bison hunt in which 569 animals were killed.

"There should be no confusion," said Pacelle. "We are opposed to the killing of animals for unnecessary purposes, and sport hunting is an unnecessary practice.

"We are an anti-cruelty, pro-environment organization, and hunting is, plain and simple, a cruel practice," Pacelle said.

At the same time, however, Pacelle said the fund recognizes a total ban on sport hunting in Montana is not realistic at this time.

"We recognize that in certain regions of the country that is not a practical goal," Pacelle said in an interview Friday. "What we try and do is stop the most abusive forms of hunting that most decent people would oppose."

"In the case of Montana, we don't have any campaigns against elk or deer hunting," Pacelle said. "We don't like those forms of activity, but we're not campaigning against it. We want to stop the most appalling forms of hunting."

Pacelle said the killing of bison that migrate into Montana from Yellowstone National Park is a perfect example of hunting that is both cruel and questionable from an ecological point of view.

So are the killing of grizzly bears in the Bob Marshall Wilderness region and mountain lions in western Montana, he said.

In various forms, Montana has hunting seasons for all three species, and right now it's open season on bison if they move out of Yellowstone.

Last year, only four animals were killed, but there was widespread media attention when animal-rights activists tried to disrupt the hunt, in one instance spreading bison blood on the face of a hunter.

Earlier this winter, 11 bulls were killed near West Yellowstone, but there has been no further killing. On Jan. 2, the state approved a bison hunting plan for the remainder of the winter, calling on National Park Service rangers to help kill the animals when they begin crossing the border in large numbers.

The rangers have not yet been called, and state officials said there are no hunts currently scheduled. Wildlife activists, many of them from California, are staying in West Yellowstone to monitor bison movement and protest any further hunting.

They say large numbers of bison are just east of the park border and could easily move into Montana as they forage for food.

The fund contends the prime motivation for hunters is to kill a bison for a trophy and that is what the group opposes most. Pacelle disputed statements by state officials that anti-hunting people don't realize most hunters eat the meat of big game animals, including bison.

Some hunters "consume some portion of the animals, but it's clear they don't need those particular types of animals - bear or bison," he said. "A few may like the taste but certainly can survive on other food."

He added, "No one is surviving on mountain lion or grizzly bear flesh."

Mountain lions were a focal point of a major animal-protection victory spearheaded by the fund in California last June. Voters approved a ballot initiative permanently banning hunting of mountain lions and appropriating $30 million a year for 30 years to acquire habitat to benefit threatened and endangered species, plus lions and deer.

But the fund is batting zero in court cases brought against the state of Montana and others in connection with the bison control program.

Twice the fund has asked U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena to outlaw killing of bison, and both times the judge ruled against the fund. Earlier this week, the fund appealed the most recent ruling to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The main contention is that bison killing violates federal and state environmental protection laws. The fund also says the fear by the Montana livestock industry that bison could spread the disease brucellosis to domestic livestock is unwarranted.

Among other things, the fund says there is no proof the disease can be transmitted from bison to cattle outside a controlled laboratory-type setting.

About half of Yellowstone's estimated 3,000 bison are believed infected with brucellosis.