Montana: Worth Fighting For, Despite the State’s Current Political Mess

Big Hole Valley. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

I’m having a hard time correlating the present state of Montana politics with Montana’s spectacular history. Montana has most always been a place where all sides had their say, where Republicans and Democrats shared power and hashed out their differences. People in Montana walk tall and help each other. We are proud but not arrogant.

Republicans now control the Montana government and they are dead set on tearing down our great state to the lowest level possible. Dignity and fairness have gone out the window. Montana, thanks partly to its ultraconservative billionaire Governor Greg Gianforte, is being reshaped into a rich person’s hideout, a necon paradise of giant private land holdings, minimal taxes and extremely conservative politics. The wealthy have dwelled here for a long time and have built their enclaves like the Yellowstone Club. But now the Koch brothers-fueled feeding frenzy is ramping up and everything, from wildlife to public lands to river access to hunting privileges to access to housing, is up for grabs.

Govrnor Gianforte has shown his true colors – he was the guy who stated that Noah kept working at 800 years old and did not need to retire – by making Montana the first state to refuse the $300 per week federal unemployment boost, instead trying to force people to go back to work regardless of their circumstance. He has signed many new laws into place that benefit the few and the rich.

That’s not the Montana I know. Montana is about being fair, being straight-up. The state’s cowboy image is honest and hard-working. We talk out our differences instead of dirty dealing behind one another’s backs. We use facts and rational arguments even if we disagree. We don’t leave people out in the cold. We help people instead of making their lives more difficult.

I was drawn to Yellowstone in 1982 to work, but soon moved to Bozeman and became captivated by Montana. Here was a state that encompassed my dreams. I could be who I wanted to be without people judging me. I had elbow room and plenty of places to explore. I could be outspoken about my liberal views and environmental concerns. Sure, there were plenty of people who disagreed with me, but we usually found ways to argue it out and come to some agreement, even if it was to disagree.

Montana enjoys a unique state constitution, approved in 1972, that guarantees us a healthy environment and way of life.

Now, I fear the right wing is really getting a stranglehold on this state. During the disastrous 2021 legislative session, knee-jerk politicians trotted out their most vile ideas and presented them in bill form. Pretending to stand up for less government, Republicans instead are hammering down on Montana citizens with lots of ways to meddle in our private lives. If you are Native American, or LGBQT, or a woman, your freedom has been further restricted this year by Montana state politicians. If you are transgender, you have now been judged as suspect.

If you are a wild animal in Montana, you have even more to be worried about. Republicans are dead-set on reversing 100 years of successful conservation and taking us back to the bad old days of unchecked slaughter of predators like grizzly bears, black bears and wolves.

Republican legislators have robbed the experts – people actually hired for their wildlife expertise – at Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks of some of their authority. Republicans have succeeded in making wildlife management purely political. This can only end in disaster for wildlife.

Montana has one of the healthiest wolf populations in the country. But that may not be true much longer.

Taken off the Endangered list in 2011 at the urging of Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, wolves in Montana already are subject to trophy hunting and trapping. This includes February, the breeding season for wolves, so pregnant wolves may be killed.

Things just got much worse for Montana wolves. And in Idaho the state plans to slaughter 90 per cent of their wolf population!

Snaring of wolves is now legal in Montana thanks to House Bill 224 – that’s right, you can catch wolves in a noose that strangles them. Snares are cheap and easy to construct and hard to see. Snaring is not only extremely cruel (it may take hours for the animal to die), snares risk accidentally capturing and injuring or killing many non-target species, such as deer, elk calves, mountain lions, eagles, otters, wolverines, pet dogs, and endangered lynx – as well as grizzly bears.

Imagine you are hiking and unintentionally get between a snared, terrified grizzly cub and its furious mother.

House Bill 225 extended the Montana wolf trapping season for four weeks into the spring, when some bears have emerged from hibernation, thus vastly increasing the chance that bears will be caught in snares set for wolves. Who is going to release an enraged grizzly from a snare? No one. The bear will have to be killed unless it can be tranquilized.

HB 468 legalized hound-hunting of black bears – its author Paul Fielder has been the real champion this year of wildlife cruelty measures. Hunting of bears with dogs is now allowed in spring meaning bears with cubs will be pursued. Such hunting is extremely hard on cubs that might be hiding up a tree when their mother is chased off and killed, leaving the cubs to die. It could also result in running grizzly bears which are protected.

Bob Brown is another poster child for animal cruelty. His bill SB 314 lifts bag limits on wolves allowing any hunter to kill an unlimited number of wolves and to do it over bait and at night with scopes. Fair chase? What’s that? Brown’s SB 267 gives “hunters” back their expenses for wolf hunting, creating what amounts to a bounty.

Mike Lang’s SB 337, passed on party lines, takes away the MT FWP’s ability to relocate grizzly bears beyond areas approved by the good ole boy, governor-appointed Fish and Wildlife Commission. This is guaranteed to result in more dead grizzlies and will further undermine federal efforts to delist grizzly bears. It leaves 15-30% of Montana’s grizzlies with no chance of relocation should they get into trouble. It also goes against the long-standing Interagency Grizzly Bear Management Guidelines which include the state of Montana.

And what happened to the respect for free enterprise? Aren’t Republicans all about doing things without government interference? So why are they so opposed to the American Prairie Reserve (APR) and their privately funded effort to restore a functioning Great Plains Ecosystem including bison? A few grumpy ranchers whose pappies and grandpappies helped nearly wipe the bison off the face of the Earth are worked up because of some imagined threat to their “way of life.”

Now you have to get approval in Montana from the local county commission to bring bison onto the landscape. What a joke. This threatens to hamstring APR’s visionary plans as well as plans by the Assiniboine, Sioux and Blackfeet to establish their own private herds. It also threatens the much-needed reintroduction of bison to places like the CM Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River and the Upper Gallatin itself.

Another new Montana law greatly increases penalties for those arrested while protesting against oil pipelines and other infrastructure projects. This is a transparent reaction to the Dakota Access pipeline protests in 2016 and the Biden administration’s canceling of the permit to construct the Keystone XL pipeline in Montana. This bill increasing criminal penalties was signed by Greg Gianforte, the guy who assaulted a reporter and illegally killed a well-known Yellowstone wolf (#1155, “Max”).

We need to watch closely what Gianforte and the Republicans are doing to Montana. Will we as Montanans allow them to tear down this great state, rip the valuable parts of it out and make Montana their private fiefdom? Or will we speak out for the real Montana, for hard working people, abundant and diverse wildlife and wide open spaces?

Bear with me for a Montana history lesson, and some boasting about my chosen state.

People arrived here over 12,000 years ago as the glaciers receded and opened a path from the north to this promised land. Here Native Americans lived self-willed lives for thousands of years, hunting the Woolly Mammoth, the Mastodon, and as these megafauna faded away turning to hunting the great bison and elk herds, roaming the mountains, canyons and rivers, knowing the land like we will never know it and leaving it intact. These people’s histories are inextricably intertwined with this great land and their legacy is timeless.

Much further back, dinosaurs prowled Montana’s deserts, swamps and forests, including the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex. The impressive T-Rex skeleton on display at the Smithsonian is from Montana. The first dinosaur known to care for its young, the Maiasaura, was discovered at Egg Mountain in Montana.

The Corps of Discovery, sent by President Jefferson to seek a route across North America and led by captains Lewis and Clark, traversed Montana in both directions in 1804 and 1806. In fact, Lewis and Clark spent more time traveling through what would become Montana than any other state. Here they “discovered” the Great falls of the Missouri and the Missouri Headwaters and met many Native American residents (not always peacefully). Sacagawea was from what would become Montana, and her brother Cameawait, who they met along the Jefferson River, helped Lewis and Clark by finding horses for them.

Hot on the heels of Lewis and Clark came the fur trappers and the heyday of the mountain man, a brutal but fascinating time romanticized in many books and movies. These rugged characters rambled as free men across a landscape not yet marred by civilization, charting their own course and opening the land to further exploration and settlement.

Montana’s gold rush brought the first white settlers. This was a lawless and violent time, when Vigilantes hung suspected highway robbers and men worked themselves to the bone for yellow metal. The land started being torn apart by industrial mining and Native Americans were robbed of their land.

The Indian Wars are more than I can go into here but suffice to say some of the bloodiest conflicts and nastiest incidents took place in Montana – at Marias, the Big Hole and elsewhere. Was it really a surprise when Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were slaughtered?

Mining and railroads came to dominate Montana and state politics as the state’s vast mineral resources were discovered. The Copper Kings ruled the state with an iron fist and brought about major labor unrest in Butte, leading to some of the labor laws we now enjoy. If his canceling of unemployment insurance is any indication, I suspect Gianforte would happily reverse all the hard won gains of the labor movement, taking us back to child labor, no safety measures in the workplace, 12 hour work days and no breaks or vacations.

Jeanette Rankin was one of Montana’s most illustrious citizens. She was the first woman in US history elected to federal office in 1916 when she became a Republican (Yes! Republican!) Representative from Montana. She was elected to Congress again in 1941. She was the only congressperson to vote against US involvement in both world wars. Rankin was also an effective advocate for women’s right to vote and crafted the 19th amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing this right.

Other admirable Montana politicians include Senator Lee Metcalf, a major booster of education and healthcare for the eldery and one of the architects of the visionary 1964 Wilderness Act.

Mike Mansfield, who lived to be 98 and served in World War 1, was also a Montana Senator. As a Democrat he served as Senate Majority Leader from 1961 to 1977, opposed the Vietnam War, served as Ambassador to Japan and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

And how you can miss the magnificence of Montana’s landscape? From Kootenai Falls to Makoshika, from the Italian Peaks to the Missouri Breaks, from the Rocky Mountain Front to the Big Hole Valley, Montana’s landscape of mountains, rolling plains, river canyons, high country lakes and vast forests will leave you dizzy with the scope and grandeur of it all. Bookended on the north and south by two of the finest national parks in the world, Glacier and Yellowstone, and traversed by the snowy, sawtoothed spine of the Continental Divide, where else can you find such amazing stretches of high country? And all populated by just a little over 1 million hardy souls.

And the skies. Big Sky Country. Here the weather keeps you on your toes and changes by the minute. Great winds sweep across the plains and mountains. Thunderheads roll into the high valleys. Lightning pounds the peaks, sparks wildfires. Blizzards howl into the heart of Montana and leave a vast white chilled blanket. Montana boasts the greatest recorded temperate range of any state, from 117 above to 70 below zero.

We share a 545 mile international border with our friendly Canadian neighbors in Alberta and British Columbia, a border that, until the pandemic, was relatively wide open and peaceful. In fact Montana and Alberta share the world’s only International Peace Park, Waterton-Glacier, as a symbol of good will and shared conservation goals between the United States and Canada.

Montana also contains some of the most spectacular and remote wilderness in the lower 48, with such gems as the Bob Marshall, Lee Metcalf, Absaroka Beartoooth, Anaconda-Pintler and Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Areas falling partly or wholly with the state’s borders. We have the gorgeous Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, as well as the mind-blowing sweep of the Rocky Mountain Front, where the great plains crash into the massive uplift of the Shining Mountains.

This is Montana. It is a proud and glorious domain, and deserves much better than the current crop of legislators and governor. Montana is worth fighting for.

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.