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Rolling hills lead to spectacular peaks of Glacier National Park west of Browning on the northern section of the Rocky Mountain Front range in Montana.

Public lands and their federal managers won strong support in the 2014 Colorado College “State of the Rockies Project” poll.

But the questions asked of 2,400 voters in six western states might miss some deeper divides in places like Montana, according to local political scientists.

“Generally speaking, Montanans have this really strong connection to the land that is bipartisan,” said Dave Parker of the Montana State University political science department. “It’s harder to nail down what that means. There’s an element of Montanans who want to preserve it and leave it alone. And there’s this element who believes the land is to be used and protected, but the bounty is to be used in perpetuity – conserve it but use it for resources purposes. Those two co-exist in Montana, but not easily.”

The poll was conducted by a duo of Democratic- and Republican-leaning survey firms, and included 400 voters in Montana. It was conducted in January and has a margin of error of 2.9 percent regionwide and 4.9 percent in individual states.

Montanans scored particularly high for the number of voters who considered themselves hunters or anglers. Nearly half (47 percent) said they pursued both pastimes, while 63 percent considered themselves “sportsmen.” Only Wyoming also placed more than half of its respondents in the sportsmen column, compared to New Mexico, Colorado and Utah (39 percent each), and Arizona (38 percent).

Montanans also showed strong use of their public lands, with 38 percent stating they visited state and national parks and forests more than 20 times in the past year. The regional average was 21 percent for that rate of use. Nine out of 10 Montanans said public lands were an essential part of the state’s economy.

The poll found most in the Rocky Mountains took a middle view on energy development, with 52 percent agreeing “some public lands should be drilled while environmentally sensitive places should be permanently protected.” One in four (26 percent) called for strict limits on oil and gas drilling on public lands, while just under one in five (18percent) said public lands should be generally open for oil and gas drilling.

They split along party lines when asked if they would vote for a candidate who favored reducing regulations on energy development. Among Republicans, 73 percent said they were more likely to support a candidate who did so, while 55 percent of Democrats were likely to oppose such a candidate. With independents, 54 percent would support a pro-energy candidate while 33 percent would oppose such a person.

But nearly three out of four voters in the six states (72 percent) said they would support a candidate who promotes more use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.

Parker said that corresponds to trends he saw in the state’s 2012 federal election. Rocky Mountain residents often see themselves as “colonies” of more populous eastern states, and look for ways of asserting independence.

“Westerners would like to be more self-sustaining, and that shows up in their opinions about energy, solar, geothermal, hydro, the Keystone XL pipeline and the Bakken (energy fields),” Parker said. “The commonality is to be more physically resource independent, and political independence would then follow.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.