Montana governor Greg Gianforte speaks to members of the press in January, 2021
A lot more people should be outraged about what Montana’s governor gets up to when he’s not legally, ethically pursuing mountain lions. (Photo: AP)

Montana’s Governor Is a Jerk, but Not Because He Hunts Mountain Lions

A ‘Washington Post’ story on Greg Gianforte’s latest hunting escapades is misleading, which is a shame, because its subject deserves much more scrutiny

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte speaks to members of the press in January, 2021
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A recent story in The Washington Post is making waves. That’s a problem, because its central thrust—that Montana governor Greg Gianforte somehow behaved illegally or unethically on a recent mountain lion hunt—appears to be untrue and misinformed. And that’s doubly a problem, because Gianforte’s controversial political choices involve actively harming Montana’s citizens, environment, and wildlife, and that deserves much more scrutiny in the media. We’ve just got to get it right. 

The Post story begins by highlighting that Gianforte shot an animal wearing a GPS tracking collar, which allowed biologists based in Yellowstone National Park to monitor its movements. Shooting a collared animal is neither rare nor illegal. Location data transmitted by the collars is available to researchers only and is not used by hunters whatsoever. 

Nor does the fact that Gianforte shot an animal that was possibly fitted with a collar while it was inside the park mean that he shot an animal that lives or was even born there. Mountain lions can travel up to 50 miles in a single day and live across ranges as large as 200 square miles. Emigrant, Montana, the community nearest to where Gianforte shot the mountain lion, according to the article, is a 30-mile drive from Yellowstone’s northern entrance. Hunting is common in the area; I hunt deer, elk, birds, and black bear there, too. Hunting is what provides most of the financing and practical management tools for wildlife conservation. 

The Post article also makes much of Gianforte’s use of hounds to locate, track, and then drive the animal up a tree. This is how virtually all cougar hunting takes place. As the Post acknowledges, mountain lions are exceptionally sneaky. Even here, in mountains that enjoy a relatively dense population of the animal, seeing one is very rare. Employing hounds doesn’t just make finding the animals possible, but it also makes the hunt more ethical. By holding their quarry in a tree, hounds enable a hunter to accurately judge its age and sex before they take a shot. This practice helps prevent the accidental killing of female or juvenile mountain lions. 

The newspaper piece also claims that some residents living close to the area where the hunt took place say that the hounds and their handlers held the mountain lion in the tree, possibly for several hours, while Gianforte traveled to the location from somewhere else. The article notes that such practice is illegal in Wyoming, which is a strange mention, because the hunt took place in Montana. A spokesperson for the governor claims he was present when the cougar was treed; regardless, Gianforte does not appear to have broken any laws here. Hunting regulations vary widely by state. 

Mountain lions are neither rare, nor threatened in Montana. The state estimates that around 5,300 cougars live here. Around 500 are killed by hunters each year. While the animal’s hide is typically preserved as a trophy, mountain lion meat is delicious. State regulations require that hunters do not waste any useable parts of the animal they kill. 

Mountain lions are regulated as a game animal in Montana. Hunting them is part of an ecologically sound management process that’s open to public input. Cougar tags cost $19 for state residents and are available to anyone who possesses a valid hunting license. Reporting a successful hunt is mandatory, and the state uses that information to monitor how many mountain lions are killed each season, and in which areas. If that number reaches a certain level (which varies by area), wildlife management officials will close the season. The goal of the mountain lion hunting program is to maintain the population at levels local ecosystems can support. Pursuing the animals may also work to keep them away from areas frequented by humans, condition them to become averse to human encounters, and help protect livestock and ungulate populations from predation. 

All that is to say, there appears to be nothing wrong with, or even remarkable about, Gianforte’s hunt. The story appears to be an attempt to manufacture outrage around an activity its author does not seem to understand. And that’s a shame, because a lot more people should be outraged about what Montana’s governor gets up to when he’s not legally, ethically pursuing mountain lions. 

Since taking office in January 2021, Gianforte has conducted what can best be described as a political war against LGBTQ Montanans. Under his leadership, Republican officials in that state have introduced a raft of anti-LGBTQ bills, including ones that prohibit transgender children from participating in sports, institute a requirement for proof of gender-altering surgery before sex can legally be changed on an ID, and ban doctors from performing gender-affirming procedures on minors. The Montana Free Press reports that Gianforte’s moves will likely cost the state hundreds of million dollars in federal eduction funding, are causing tech companies to reconsider locating here, are hampering recruitment and retention rates for medical professionals, and will likely increase Montana’s already high suicide rates.

Gianforte’s anti-LGBTQ, antiabortion beliefs are nothing new. Before becoming governor, his family’s charitable trust donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a variety of organizations promoting such causes. Notably, Gianforte’s trust donated $290,000 to a museum in Glendive, Montana, teaching that humans and dinosaurs coexisted on a 6,000-year-old earth and promoting as fact a claim that dinosaurs traveled on Noah’s ark.

While serving in Congress, Gianforte introduced a bill that would have stripped protections from 700,000 acres of public land in Montana. It went nowhere, but the Missoulian says it would have been “the single biggest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history.”

Gianforte went on to vote against conservation measures on 101 of 109 occasions during his single term in Congress. 

Gianforte has also sued the Montana state government in an attempt to weaken the state’s Stream Access Law, which is the bedrock legislation supporting public fishing access in the state. Fishing supports the Montana economy to the tune of $7.1 billion and 71,000 jobs annually. For his lieutenant governor, he selected a lawyer who has also worked against the Stream Access Law. 

In 2017, Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter who asked a question about health care policy at the statehouse in Helena, resulting in misdemeanor assault charges. In 2020, the political director of Gianforte’s campaign for governor vandalized a car driven by a teenage girl over a parking dispute outside a restaurant in Bozeman. 

Gianforte’s tenure has also seen preference for elk tags transferred from normal members of the public to wealthy landowners, including the Wilks brothers, a pair of Texas billionaires who are notorious in neighboring Idaho for eliminating public access to vast tracts of national forest.

And while his mountain lion hunt was totally legal, Gianforte trapped a wolf in 2021 without first completing an education course mandated by the state. Wildlife officials issued him a warning. 

I could go on, but you get the point. The governor of Montana is, in my opinion, a jerk who deserves significant media scrutiny. But if we’re to effectively protect the state’s wildlife, environment, and citizens from his actions, we have to get that media scrutiny right. And there’s not yet a law against governors participating in legal, ethical mountain lion hunts. 

Lead Photo: Thom Bridge/Independent Record/AP

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