Greg Gianforte's disregard for hunting norms and public goods - TAI News
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Greg Gianforte attends the Crow Fair in Crow Agency, Mont., on August 18, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There’s a wolf at Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s door, and it will be an issue in the embattled Republican’s reelection campaign against Democrat Ryan Busse this year.

There is no dispute of the basic fact, based on reporting from the New York Times, that Gianforte shot a radio-collared wolf in 2021 after it had been snared in a steel-jawed leg-hold trap. Nor is there a dispute that Gianforte violated regulations in doing so. 

State law requires that trapped animals be either killed or released as soon as the trapper discovers the ensnared animal. In this case, the trapper who discovered the wolf was Matt Lumley, a controversial manager of a billionaire’s private ranch where the incident occurred. Lumley neither killed nor released the wolf. Instead, he alerted the governor, who traveled from Helena to the ranch, a three-hour drive (although Gianforte may have flown), and shot the trapped wolf. This was the violation.

According to the Times’ reporting, former officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks say they were pressured by department leaders to cover up the fact that it was Gianforte who had shot the wolf, and there’s a circumstantial case to be made here that this incident lies at the root of a series of demotions, forced retirements and administrative leaves at the department. The assumption is that the governor is punishing the department for this incident and another, his widely publicized dispute with that same department before he became governor when he tried to close public access to a fishing site on his private property. That incident played prominently in his losing race in 2016 against incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.

The governor disputes the idea of a vendetta. In the New York Times story, a spokesman for Gianforte characterized the controversy about details of the incident with officials of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as “far-left fever dreams peddled by desperate partisans.”

Yet for Montana’s hunters, more than a quarter of its adult population, there are deeper issues here than a technical violation of trapping regulations. Gianforte’s methods are not so much a violation of law as they are a clear violation of norms. In this case, a norm that has a name: fair chase. Like many such norms, it is so deeply held that it becomes an unspoken rule. Many hunters — and many who don’t hunt — find the idea of shooting an animal snared in a leg-hold trap morally repugnant. 

The norm has been widely supported among hunters, especially by the late Jim Posewitz, a longtime Fish, Wildlife and Parks employee who late in life became an author and proponent of ethical hunting. To those who subscribe to this doctrine, Gianforte’s action was unethical, revealing a fundamental lack of character.

But perhaps the more significant issue here is where the killing occurred: on the Point of Rocks ranch that Lumley manages for the Sinclair family, owner of Sinclair Broadcasting, which controls a nationwide network of television stations known for placing right-wing controls on its news departments. Sinclair has four such stations in Montana. Robert Sinclair has maxed out donations to Gianforte’s previous campaigns and has given $6,000 so far to Republican Tim Sheehy’s run for the U.S. Senate. 

Gianforte also shot a mountain lion, also radio-collared, near that same ranch. This is the same ranch where Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale were when they photographed themselves for social media posts claiming they were on public lands, enjoying and supporting public lands. They were not.

All this aligns perfectly with Gianforte’s actions in other areas, such as public education and foster care of children, areas where he has aggressively pursued privatization of public endeavors. Gianforte’s actions reinforce an argument offered by right-wing landowners in the state that they are free to treat wildlife as they wish on private land. 

In the case of the Sinclair ranch, this is a particularly jarring argument because the ranch lies within the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, a massive public investment for a century-and-a-half in maintaining some of the nation’s best wildlife habitat. Simply put, there would not be an abundance of wildlife on the Sinclair ranch without that public investment in land and science and radio collars for biological research.

This context elevates the matter well beyond bureaucratic squabble and legal technicalities. What is at stake here is long-held norms of Montana’s people. This is not a matter for game wardens and courts, but for voters to decide if a foundational shift has occurred to move the state’s basic beliefs in the direction Gianforte favors. In fact, there is a clear and stark contrast between Gianforte and his Democratic opponent for the governorship, Ryan Busse.

“We manage wildlife as a public trust. It’s not there for profit. That’s the beauty of it,” Busse said in an interview. “Gianforte wants to create a state where there are two paths: One for wealthy people, and they get one kind of treatment, and one for everybody else, and they get a different kind of treatment. It’s happening in Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It’s happening in schools. It’s happening in health care. It’s happening across the board.”

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