It takes more than buying a bunch of game tags to represent Montana hunters, according to a sportsmen’s coalition.
With a month to go until the special election for Montana’s lone Congressional seat, the Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance has thrown its support behind Democratic candidate Rob Quist. The MSA political action committee says Quist comes closest to supporting the values of Montana’s sportsmen and women.
MSA spokesman Joe Perry said the group sent a survey to both Quist and his opponent, Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, but only Quist responded.
“We were comfortable with Rob’s stand on our issues. He shares our views on federal lands transfer and a bunch of other issues,” Perry said. “We offered the same chance to Mr. Gianforte. He was sent the survey, and we haven’t heard from him since. This is a short election and we don’t chase candidates.”
The Gianforte campaign did not return this reporter's request for comment.
The Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance is an “organic Montana sportsmen’s group,” Perry said, made up of hunters and anglers who also participate in a wide collection of groups, including Walleyes Unlimited, the Montana Wildlife Federation and various rod and gun clubs. The majority depends on public lands, lakes and streams for their pastime.
For that reason, a primary concern of theirs is keeping public lands in public hands. That concern has grown under the Trump administration, as the president has approved more resource extraction on federal land and has called for the review of recently designated national monuments. In addition, his budget would slash millions from the budgets of land management agencies, making their jobs all the more difficult.
Because Gianforte has tried to bar access to a stream running through his Gallatin Valley property, the MSA doubts he would work to keep federal land open to the ordinary people.
“Conservation needs the involvement of ordinary citizens. If you can’t involve ordinary citizens, the environment loses advocacy. It just becomes something for the rich to enjoy and the ordinary folks are not allowed to look over the fence,” said J.W. Westman of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club.
Mark Reller of Helena said he couldn’t afford to hunt if it weren’t for public lands, and public lands need regulation. So he disagrees with Republican arguments of federal overreach.
“Gianforte represents corporate overreach and lack of regulation. We need a referee in the game. We need someone to balance out that million-dollar bonus for me and other hunters,” Reller said.
With financial records showing personal assets totaling between $65 million and $315 million, Gianforte is not an ordinary citizen. He does hunt but probably doesn’t to depend on public land for his hunting access.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks records show Gianforte has bought between six and eight hunting and trapping tags every year while Quist hasn’t bought any for more than a decade, according to a April 26 Billings Gazette story.
That doesn’t faze members of the MSA. Perry said the 70-year-old Quist has had health issues that have kept Quist out of the game. But that doesn’t stop Quist from defending Montana’s resources, Perry said.
“Being a hunter or a fisherman isn’t a prerequisite, and not all of us can hunt anymore. But we’re doing it for the next generation, not ourselves,” Perry said. “It doesn’t matter whether you have a room full of trophies or not. What matters is what are you able to do for the resource.”
Rancher Steve Charter said hunters weren’t the only ones dependent on public lands – ranchers are too. Many have federal grazing leases that are far less expensive than they would be if ranchers had to buy the land or pay private landowners.
“They wouldn’t be able to afford it. Federal land transfer would be devastating to ranching in Montana,” Charter said.
A recent poll shows Gianforte with a lead in the race, although some have questioned the reliability of the poll. But should Quist lose on May 25, Perry said MSA would try to work with Gianforte to preserve Montana values.
“The idea is to work with the folks who get elected. And whether they’re your candidate or not, they’re now Montana’s representative. It’s all over when the election is over with,” Perry said.