The aftermath of the Montana elections has created some curious speculation about why Montanans bucked the national trends by electing Democrats to overturn the Republican stranglehold on our Legislature and governor’s office. Much of the speculation, especially that appearing in national media, concerns gun rights, hunting and fishing—and their supposed attachment to one political party or type of individual. Obviously, the people making these speculations lack broad experience in our state, and by trying to pigeonhole Montanans into their limited concepts have seriously mistaken our identities.
Take this explanation from a Washington Monthly column crediting Brian Schweitzer’s recent win on his strong support for hunting access. It was written by David Sirota, who had taken a leave of absence from the Center for American Progress to work for the Schweitzer campaign. “The beauty of the access issue was three-fold. First, it helped Schweitzer make inroads with the constituency of outdoorsmen that is normally Democrat-averse. Second, it let us speak to both left-leaning environmentalists, who wanted public lands and wildlife herds maintained, and right-leaning outdoorsmen who wanted a place to recreate and a steady population of game to hunt. This was especially important because we did not want to alienate the enviros who would be out in force on election day to vote against an initiative to permit cyanide leach mining. Stern, who had a deft sense of strategy, once pointed out, ‘Hunters can be some of the biggest environmentalists around, even though they don’t think of themselves that way and would never in a million years label themselves that.’”
I thank Mr. Sirota for his work on Schweitzer’s campaign, but he is somewhat off base when it comes to enviros and hunters. For instance, who could doubt that Jim Jensen, the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center and the architect of Montana’s ban on cyanide heap leach mining, is anything but an environmentalist? What Mr. Sirota may not know is that Jensen is also a dedicated hunter with a freezer full of elk meat.
John Gatchell, the conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, goes out every year to bag his deer or elk. Chef Boy Ari, the Indy’s food columnist, munches on antelope, whitetail and mule deer that he brought down and processed with his own hands. Indy photographer Chad Harder bagged his whitetail buck on opening day and is now off chasing elk in southwest Montana’s extended season. Or how about me? My freezer is full of little white packages that were once a beautiful whitetail buck, instantly killed with one clean shot to the neck and lovingly processed in my own kitchen—and I assure you, no one could possibly mistake me for a “right-leaning” outdoorsman or “Democrat-averse.” It is simply preposterous to believe that these hunters are not environmentalists—or that we would hesitate, even for one moment, to think of or label ourselves as such.
The same goes for anglers. Hal Harper, former Speaker of the House and Schweitzer’s policy adviser, has been a dedicated fly fisherman for his entire life. Moreover, recognizing the value of our world-famous Montana streams, Harper sponsored the original River Restoration Act in 1989 to restore streams and promote natural reproduction of wild trout. Note that “wild trout” part, since most eastern anglers have to settle for pulling limp hatchery fish from “put and take” streams that have been too degraded or polluted for natural reproduction to maintain viable populations of wild trout.
John Bohlinger, our new lieutenant governor, is also a fly fisherman with a great love for Montana’s waters. As the incoming chairman of the state’s Drought Advisory Council, it will be Bohlinger’s job to make sure we sustain our world-famous fisheries when drought and competing uses for sparse water threaten our blue ribbon streams. It won’t be because a bunch of “right-leaning outdoorsmen” pressure him to do so, but because, like so many Montanans across the political spectrum, Bohlinger has a strong sense of responsibility to future generations to ensure that they get to enjoy the abundant fish and wildlife resources that are part and parcel of living in Montana.
National politicos err greatly by trying to simplify Montana’s hunting and fishing population in terms of their own limited experience and understanding. We don’t need to be draped in a Confederate flag, wear a NASCAR hat or speak with a drawl. In fact, most of the time when those supposed icons of “right-leaning outdoorsmen” show up out here, they’re out-of-state hunters whose own states have been so environmentally degraded they must go elsewhere to find abundant wild game. So they come to Montana.
Need an example? Utah’s big-game hunting season is five days long. Five days. If Montana’s wildlife populations were ever driven to the point that we faced a five-day hunting season, I assure you there would be a wholesale replacement of the politicians and bureaucrats responsible—no matter which party was in charge. Those of us who reside here know these things because we live them on a daily basis. Montana hunters are most often out there for one reason—to put good, clean, healthy Montana game into their freezers to feed their families. If we happen to get a nice buck or bull elk, we’re happy. But the wise old saying around here is: “You can’t eat horns.”
Nor are Montana’s Democrats trying to “take away our guns.” For one thing, they don’t need anyone else’s guns since they have plenty of their own—and you’d best believe they’d be hell on wheels if anyone tried to take them away. Again, the labels just don’t fit.
Montanans of all political persuasions hunt and fish, we are proud of it, and I assure you, we intend to do so regardless of how the fickle winds of politics blow. For national political analysts to suggest otherwise is simply a case of mistaken identity.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.