Big wildlife persecuted as surrogates for change
HELENA, Montana––Wolves, bison, grizzly bears, and pumas scare the staunchly Republican ranching, hunting, logging, oil, gas, and mining establishments of Montana, but what scares them the most appears to be the prospect of becoming more like Colorado and New Mexico, where Democratic-leaning Hispanic and Native American voters often hold the balance of power, from gubernatorial mansions down to the county level.
The “culture wars” over predators are not about maintaining the mythical macho lifestyle of the American West, no matter what the pretense of Montana legislators sporting cowboy boots that have never touched manure.
The roof-climbing solar installers of Colorado and New Mexico daily demonstrate bravado just as much as any Montana gas well worker turned weekend rodeo cowboy. A Silverado pickup truck, moreover, is much bigger than a Chevy Montana pickup.
The wildlife-centered “culture wars” in Montana today are really all about who controls one of the last bastions of the Confederate diaspora, which brought Old South attitudes and lynch law to the U.S. West following the Civil War.
The regional recovery of wolves, bison, grizzlies and pumas is barely a visible threat to any human being, and has already been an economic boon to Montana tourism for several decades.
Big wildlife, however, reminds people used to thinking of themselves as the dominant species and top predators among the mountains that they, too, can be trampled and eaten, if they choose to live as if who tramples and eats whom is the guiding principle of society.
Wolves coming to Colorado by people’s choice
What the Republican-controlled Montana legislature and Montana governor Greg Gianforte see when they look southward these days is no longer the southern white immigration from Texas and Louisiana that came decades ago with oil and gas development.
What Montana politicians see now, looking south, is that it was not the allegedly interfering federal government, but rather the voters of Colorado who in November 2020 mandated wolf reintroduction to that state.
Wolf reintroduction is predictably encountering some resistance in the Colorado rural counties that most resemble Montana. The Rio Blanco County board of commissioners in late March 2021, for example, “approved a resolution declaring Rio Blanco a ‘Wolf Reintroduction Sanctuary County,’ essentially daring Colorado Parks & Wildlife to bring the wolf back,” reported Noelle Phillips of the Denver Post.
But Colorado Parks & Wildlife does not have to actually reintroduce wolves to Rio Blanco County for wolves to return, now that they are no longer officially persecuted. Once wolves do return, there will be relatively little that Rio Blanco County, or any county, can do to keep them out without risk of prosecution.
New Mexico restricts traps, snares, poisons
New Mexico voters in November 2020 meanwhile empowered a Democratic legislature and governor whose first actions of 2021 included passing a law similar to legislation already in effect in California since 1998 which severely restricts the use of traps, snares, and poisons on public land.
The New Mexico law also parallels existing legislation in the neighboring states of Arizona and Colorado.
Called Roxy’s Law in memory of a family dog who was fatally snared in 2018, the New Mexico anti-trapping, snaring, and poisoning law was endorsed into effect by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 5, 2021, after clearing the state senate by a vote of 35-34.
Mexican gray wolves
The close vote demonstrates how recently and by how little the balance of power has tipped in New Mexico. But as well as protecting dogs, Roxy’s Law protects endangered Mexican gray wolves, a flashpoint for “culture war” conflict since Mexican gray wolf restoration was first formally proposed in 1982. The conflict over wolves has continued with escalated intensity since the first dozen wolves were reintroduced in 1998.
“The endangered Mexican gray wolf called Mia Tuk, for example, was caught in a trap and bludgeoned to death by a trapper in 2015. At least two wolves have been injured in traps in New Mexico in the past six months,” mentioned Jessica Johnson of Animal Protection Voters.
The passage of Roxy’s Law seems to signify that Mexican gray wolves now have a stronger constituency in New Mexico than their opponents.
Coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers
And so do other predators, even coyotes.
“Bobcats, foxes, badgers and ringtails play vital ecological roles and don’t deserve horrific deaths just so their pelts can be sold internationally,” offered Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, headquartered in Silver City, New Mexico.
“I’m particularly grateful that banning these traps means we won’t see any new three-legged Mexican wolves limping through the Gila National Forest,” Robinson added.
Judge stops puma massacre
Anti-predator views were also recently rejected by Denver U.S. District Court chief judge Marcia Krieger.
“Colorado Parks & Wildlife planned to kill about half of the mountain lions in the Upper Arkansas River Basin between Leadville and Salida,” about 230 in all, over a nine-year interval, summarized Colorado Sun reporter Jason Blevins.
The killing was ostensibly to be done to “study the impact of predators on declining mule deer populations,” Blevins said.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife drafted the “study” proposal in 2016, asking the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to pay about 75% of the cost of conducting the “study,” which also targeted black bears. The goal was to bolster the $1 billion-a-year Colorado sport hunting industry.
The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the United States sued to stop the “study,” and won, pending appeal.
“At least for right now, there is no federal funding for a $4 million project, and without the funding, they will not be able to move forward in the same capacity,” said Center for Biological Diversity lawyer Andrea Zaccardi.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, presently without a director, said only that it “will be considering the next steps.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a separate, unrelated, but almost simultaneous ruling issued by the federal court for the District of Columbia, was advised that it may no longer “withhold critical data on U.S. imports of hunting trophies and other wildlife parts and products from the public,” Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block noted.
While not directly involving native American species, the Washington D.C. verdict was a further warning to the old guard power holders that trying to hold their grip on a culture and economy centered on animal, habitat, and resource exploitation is a lost cause.
Montana governor Greg Gianforte, the first Republican to hold the office in 16 years, need only walk and look down in some parts of the state to see small fossilized fragments of the dinosaurs who ruled that part of the earth, unchallenged, for millions of years. They don’t amount to much now, though gas and oil from the plant-based diets of hadrosaurs and ceratopsians continues to power about $2.65 billion worth of the state economy, about the same as agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing combined.
But Gianforte in recent months has been preoccupied with more recent history. In February 2021, for instance, Gianforte “ trapped and shot a black radio-collared wolf known as 1155 that had come north onto a private ranch from nearby Yellowstone National Park. The wolf wore a collar as part of a study of wolves at Yellowstone,” recounted Jim Robbins for the New York Times.
“Ethically, humanely, & lawfully”
“While trapping and even shooting a collared wolf outside the park are legal in Montana,” Robbins continued, “the governor had neglected to take a required three hour wolf trapping certification course that teaches hunters to trap and hunt wolves ‘ethically, humanely and lawfully.’”
Gianforte, who says he has been “trapping since [he] was a tot,” now claims to have completed the wolf trapping course.
Meanwhile, recited Robbins “Several bills are headed to Gianforte’s desk that would allow for more killing of wolves,” including allowing wolf hunters to jacklight, bait wolves, and make more use of neck snares.
“Other controversial predator proposals,” Robbins continued, “allow hunting black bears with hounds, a practice outlawed a century ago, and placing limits on where wandering grizzlies can be moved, which conservationists say could lead to more bear deaths.”
Gianforte is also expected to sign Montana house bills HB 302, which would allow individual counties to veto any state decision to reintroduce bison to local habitat, and HB 318, which would “amend the legal definition of ‘wild’ buffalo” [bison] in a way that appears to not recognize any ‘wild’ buffalo in Montana.,” assesses Buffalo Field Campaign.
Regardless of what the Montana legislature passes and Gianforte signs, though, economic and demographic trends suggest that the animal-and-resource-extraction-based culture they are defending is doomed.
The only issue in doubt is how backward Montana can remain for how long, with the hunting, ranching, and now oil and gas industries all in declines that are unlikely to be reversed by any amount of state-level lawmaking, even as global warming makes Montana more like Colorado and New Mexico regardless of anyone’s politics.