Montana’s New War On Wildlife and Sensibility

Thursday Apr. 1st, 2021

This past January, Montana swore in our new Governor, a Republican known for body-slamming a reporter during his run for Congress several years ago. Greg Gianforte swept to the Governor’s seat this past November due in large part to the Trump vote in Montana. In fact, so too did the state legislature, our congressional seat and the senate re-election of Republican Steve Daines.

While many may have wanted lower taxes and less government, what they have gotten instead is a Trump reincarnation in Gianforte, a New Jersey native who made his fortune in tech. He financed his own election campaign with $7.6 million in personal donations. Montana has had bad governors and legislatures before but nothing on the scale we are currently witnessing. This legislature is a window into Trump loyalty on steroids. The Governor has made clear he will rule the state with an iron fist! His vision for the state is dystopian, where oil and gas, timber and mining, trophy hunting and trapping are priorities. He also is a religious fundamentalist who has funded a church, bible college and charter school and underwritten a museum with dioramas of dinosaurs and humans on earth together 6,000 years ago.

photo: Linda Kelly

Montana’s current legislature is a place where time is going in reverse. Bill after bill removes rights, ignores public initiatives already passed, slaughters wolves and expands trapping on a scale that any sane person would find shocking.

Jerry Black, a long-time Montana home owner and wolf advocate said, “Never in my life have I been witness to the wholesale slaughter of wildlife, which this Governor and the Republican legislature are pushing, it’s sickening.”

High, wide and handsome, as author Joseph Kinsey Howard called our state, Montana is the last place in the continental U.S. where iconic species find refuge: grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines and lynx to name a few. We are proud of our wildlife, and our wild lands; in fact, that’s why many of us live here.

But now, with the rightwing takeover of our legislature in step with the new governor, bills are speeding through the 2021 legislative session that would wipe out wildlife and privatize hunting. One bill extends wolf trapping seasons into spring when bears and many animals are emerging and hungry and will go for the baited traps. The wolves will also be giving birth, so there will be young left to die in traps. Bills allow bounties on wolves, night hunting of wolves, children as young as 11 ½ to kill wolves, classifying wolves as vermin to be killed year-round with no license, a command to kill at least 900 wolves this coming year, and allowing the snaring of wolves. Snares slowly strangle or often result in severed limbs of any animal unlucky enough to step into one. One bill would make trapping part of the state constitution, even barring urban areas from putting traps off-limits. This should be a national story of disgrace for the state. Meaning people may reconsider travel plans.

photo: Krisztina Gayler

Several weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece on violent white supremacist and other extremist groups. Montana is No. 1 in the nation per capita by a margin of two to one over any other state. In a state that leads in hate, we are now going to let trappers, who maintain their power by fear and intimidation, have unrestricted freedom to torture wildlife and kill without fair chase or morality.

April Christofferson, Bozeman author, lawyer and fourth generation Westerner said, “This governor and legislature are working hard to ensure any good business considering relocating to our state, including Big Tech, will think long and hard if hate and wildlife slaughter are the drawing card.”

Meanwhile Gov. Gianforte and his legislature are moving swiftly on a bill that would allow the construction of nuclear power plants with no public input (despite a 1978 citizen initiative which passed with 65 percent support that barred such actions). When asked why citizens should not have a voice in any nuclear project, Representative Derek Skees, (R) Kalispell, put it this way, “I’m not taking away from citizens their right to determine how this looks, I am taking it off the ballot so that bad players cannot sway 51% of Montana with what I think are not truths.”

Gianforte and the legislature have multiple bills to end abortion, crush LBGTQ rights and allow concealed weapons without permits at schools, in the Capitol, in bars, almost everywhere.

When it comes to wildlife in Montana, Paul Fielder (R) Thompson Falls, views indiscriminate trapping as an art, a science and a tremendous gift to the citizens of Montana, where just 0.6% of the population actually traps. Other lawmakers are pushing legislation which will allow shooting and trapping endangered grizzly bears near cattle. Legislative committees are composed of ranchers, taxidermists, jerky company employees, realtors and carpenters who hold vital votes on matters of wildlife, without any science or understanding of wildlife biology. They vote as Fielder instructs. Before Paul Fielder, it was his wife—Jennifer, CEO for the Koch Industries’ American Land Council, the sole purpose of which is to transfer public lands. Jennifer Fielder was elected to the Public Service Commission after terming out of the state senate. In a Montana Human Rights Network report, she is mentioned as a white supremacist along with her neighbor John Trochmann of Ruby Ridge fame, a founder of the 1990’s militia movement and the Militia of Montana. Jennifer Fielder, who campaigned to dissolve Indian reservations, transfer public lands to the state, make trapping a constitutional right, and dismantle Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is a trapper too.

Support for the trapping and wolf killing bills comes from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which established the Foundation for Wildlife Management in Idaho that helps fund $1,000 bounties on the killing of each wolf in Idaho. Now Paul Fielder and others are passing legislation allowing that in Montana. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency charged with managing the state’s wildlife, has a long history that is short on science and heavy on supporting trapping, guided by political influence. While some argue that Fielder is doing this on his own, many also understand that in Governor Gianforte’s regime, nothing moves forward without the governor’s approval. Which in this case is not hard, because Gianforte is also a trapper; he has said many times some of his fondest memories are trapping with his daughter. A lifetime member of both the National and the Montana Trappers Associations, Gianforte, worth about $189 million, gives money to support their torture of wildlife, gets awards from them, and was endorsed by them.

Trapping is year-round in Montana for predators and nongame species. Furbearers and wolves have generous seasons, giving the animals just enough time to bear offspring. Some trap lines can be 100 miles long, by truck or snowmobile, and kill anything that is drawn to their steel and cable. They are found on rivers, in trees, on private and public ground, on closed roads where people enjoy cross-country skiing. They are found near trails and even fishing access sites around the state. Many family pets have been killed lured into traps baited with dead animal parts or scents. Many more unintended species also find traps, including bald eagles, magpies, deer, elk, cattle, sheep, horses, mountain lions and bears. For every target animal caught, two more are killed and discarded. Many are outraged that so few can literally control 100% of Montanan’s state and public lands.

In Idaho, a recent report released through a public records request by Western Watersheds Project to the Idaho Fish and Game department showed widespread capture and mortality of non-target species related to wolf trapping and snaring. For 2011-2012, wolf trappers in Idaho killed 177 wolves, but also captured 246 non-target animals and more than 118 died, meaning 57% of species caught or killed were non-target. Trappers only check their traps or snares every three days in Idaho, so the animal withers in pain for days, often in sub-zero temperatures before a trapper comes and beats it to death with a club, stomps on it or shoots it. Today wolves are being killed a record levels, so the bycatch number is much larger. In Montana, there is no mandatory trap check time limit. The art and science of trapping that Rep. Paul Fielder boasts about is unsupportable by any measure.

Many in the conservation community are outraged. Some groups are focusing on states like Colorado, where they feel progressive politics will show victories. But the reality for wolves is that in western states where they have been restored, the power of livestock and trophy hunting interests weighs in for shooting and trapping of wolves, despite public outcry. What happens in Montana may well be a precursor for Colorado.

photo: Krisztina Gayler

Trapping and hate are connected. Psychologists have made connections about children who at a young age begin trapping and bludgeoning animals to death. They appear to have a lack of development in the supramarginal gyrus of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that understands and has empathy for pain and suffering. As they grow older, this part lacks development, much like the lack of feeling that most sociopaths and serial killers exhibit. Rita Giebink, Billings, MT, wrote of her time as a corrections officer in a women’s prison. After building trust, an inmate confided that when she was a child, her grandfather would bring home piles of dead and dying animals he caught in traps. When he caught her giving water to a dying coyote under a pile of dead coyotes, he punished her by forcing her to watch him skin the animal alive. She was in prison for a double homicide.

Trappers are not poster boys for charm school, nor are they rugged individuals. They use four-wheel drive trucks, powerboats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles to lay their deadly hardware. The price for a pile of pelts today does not even pay their gas, but they continue to be a menace on our public lands. They have a zeal for killing wildlife that many find disturbing. They also have a history of threats, harassment and intimidation against any who challenge their recreation of trapping wildlife. In one instance, they put anti-freeze in the food product of an anti-trapping activist on a grocery store shelf. They get support from the NRA, Sportsmen’s Alliance, Safari Club, Big Game Forever and trapper associations across the country, all of which paid $600,000 to defeat an initiative in 2016 that would have banned trapping on Montana’s public lands.

Mary Sue Wardell, a lifelong Republican who moved to Montana several years ago told me that she was outraged by the actions of this legislature and the Governor. “Trapping is abhorrent, it should not be a Republican or Democratic issue,” she said. “It is about respecting nature and all living beings. Why Republicans are going down this path makes no sense to me.” She added, “We must begin to make our own party understand that most of us care deeply about the environment and these bills cannot be the symbol of our party.”

Governor Gianforte’s welcome slogan is “Open for Business.” Gianforte has had nothing to say about white extremists or terrorists, but according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, groups like -Act for America, an anti-Muslim group; American Freedom Party, White Nationalists, American Front, Racist Nationalist, Last Chance Patriots and the Proud Boys all have made Montana home. That hate has carried over into our politics with a legislature that is throwing sanity and fairness out the window for a fringe element fomenting in Montana.

The message seems to be clear in Montana: We will strip away most of your rights, we will give tax breaks only to the wealthiest, we will make trapping part of the constitution so that recreating in our state becomes a risk factor for people, children and pets. On a hike, you could come upon an animal suffering in panic and pain, chewing off its trapped leg or wringing off an entire limb. If you touch the trap or try to free the creature, you will break the law, with serious penalties.

On this platform, Greg Gianforte wants to welcome business to Montana. He wants tourists to come to Yellowstone and spend money to see wolves that are trapped and shot when they step across the park’s boundaries. He wants to welcome polluting companies to set up shop by abolishing regulations. These are dark times for my home state; it’s heartbreaking. These regressive policies chip away at the foundation of what makes Montana so special. Many Montanans fear they are witnessing the destruction of their faith- the land and wildlife that define our wildness, the place they call home.

photo: US Department of the Interior Tami Hellemann

The answer to this nightmare may lie with Deb Haaland, who will become our next Interior Secretary; Haaland has made clear as a congressional representative that she opposes trapping. Steve Daines, our Republican senator, is staunchly opposed to her nomination; trapping is a top issue for him, as high on the list as oil and gas development on public lands. As beneficiary of $574,585 from the oil and gas industry, Daines is number seven in the top 20 recipients.

The other tool to stop the indiscriminate killing of our precious wildlife would be an executive order by President Biden to ban trapping on public lands in the West. This would finally strip away the power of a tiny minority that lays waste all over our landscape. Montana is currently a case study in the need for Federal Government intervention on matters of wildlife; it must be checked from its legislature’s worst impulses. The time is long overdue for science and sanity in wildlife management. Thirty percent of people who come to Montana and use outfitters simply want to explore the mountains, prairies and rivers, and see wildlife, especially wolves.

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, a 900-foot-deep toxic sludge lake where birds die if they touch down, is still the biggest Superfund complex in the country, and it is rising. Repairing vandalism and destruction on our lands takes a long time. For wildlife, it can mean extinction.

Greg Gianforte is now our governor, and this endless amount of legislation designed to appease the most radical in his party is being passed at his desire. The outcome is not creating an “open for business “banner, but rather it reinforces the reality that some in Montana want to keep this state locked into a 19th century mentality of Copper Kings. In Gianforte they have found their savior.

Jerry Black is a Retired Airline Pilot at Delta Airlines who has called Missoula, MT home for the past two decades.