Montanans are hunters — not all, but twice the national average. Hunting puts food on our tables, keeps us in “elk fit” condition, surrounds us in beauty, and leaves us feeling vital. I’m always pleased when a non-hunting friend asks if I would take them or their child out. It happens often.
Montana is also serious about fair chase hunting. Fair chase recognizes that, at this point, we have the technology to kill too easily and that the object of hunting is not just to take an animal. Hunting should be hard. It should occur in wild places at distances where an animal’s acute senses come into play and defeat the hunter more often than not. Our hunters feel new technologies should be limited; indeed, about half the world’s finest traditional bowyers live here.
As chronic wasting disease crosses our borders, it’s worth noting that we outlawed game farms and wildlife feeding long ago. The results here are opportunity, abundance, quality experiences and long seasons that are the envy of hunters internationally. Montanans can introduce kids and friends to hunting with pride; we can explain our ethics to non-hunters with clarity.
Recent Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke was raised in Montana, but he sure as hell did not bring a Montanan fair chase or land ethic to Washington. His Interior instructed the National Park Service to enact regulations allowing the baiting of brown (grizzly) bears, the killing of wolves and pups during denning season, and the killing of hibernating black bear sows and cubs on national reserve lands in Alaska. Those aren’t hunting techniques; they are methods of extermination.
When he became secretary, Zinke told Americans he was a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. Along with his efforts to preserve land, Roosevelt is famous for refusing to kill an exhausted juvenile bear that had been captured, clubbed and tied to a tree. In contrast, Zinke has instructed the Park Service to allow elimination of predators. Admittedly, some guides love this. They can bait a bear in for a trophy hunter with minimal work and a high success ratio, and sell high-odds moose and caribou hunts simultaneously. Zinke’s goal is to turn our public lands into profit centers, including national reserves set aside to protect wildlife numbers and diversity.
Zinke has repeatedly emphasized his interest in the sportsman’s voice in conversations about our public lands. What fair chase hunter advocates for killing sows and cubs in their dens? What responsible sportsman advocates for baiting grizzlies and leaving others to deal with food-habituated bears? When these types of actions are proposed in the name of hunters, it makes all of us look bad to the large non-hunting public and gives anti-hunters lethal ammunition.
In 2003, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wrote that fair chase is sometimes hard to define, but that obviously unethical hunting practices exist:
“Most of us can answer these questions when it comes to flagrant violations — hunting from a helicopter, hunting with spotlights at night, or hunting an animal over bait.”
What is obvious to FWP is clearly not to Zinke. It didn’t take long for him to forget some Montanan core beliefs and instead finger the deep pockets of energy companies. It also didn’t take long for him to lose his position at Interior.
When Zinke disappointed hunters, they turned on him hard and will remember his many failures if he returns to run for office here. And they will be watching Trump’s next Interior nominee with the hard eyes of disappointed hunters — hunters with the natural wealth of Montana’s wildlife and habitat to lose.