By Todd Wilkinson EBS Columnist
By now many people know: at the very end of December 2021, Greg Gianforte shot a mountain lion in the Rock Creek drainage rising above Paradise Valley.
While wildlife conservationists condemned the cougar killing, Gianforte defenders claim it’s a nonstory, that he pursued the cat legally with the help of houndsmen and their dogs, which chased the animal to a tree inside the Custer Gallatin National Forest. It was there, with the cat high up in the branches and having nowhere else to go, that Gianforte took aim and fired.
Again, it is true that cougar hunting in Montana with dogs is legal. What has left a large number of Montanans and Americans incredulous is that Gianforte’s friends claim he should be treated just like any other citizen, which means having details of his hunts remain anonymous.
That might all make sense were Gianforte not the governor of Montana. And the fact that the lion he killed wore a radio collar and was part of an ongoing research project in Yellowstone intended to glean information about the elusive felines as they wander transboundary areas in and out of America’s first national park.
The story worthiness is bolstered further by the fact that seven months earlier in 2021 the governor in the same general vicinity shot a wolf that was caught in a trap. That animal too had a radio collar around its neck and was part of a different research project in Yellowstone that is world renowned.
Those facts alone would warrant news coverage, but they are even more intriguing since Gianforte, in his role as the most prominent elected state official, has staked out antagonistic positions toward Yellowstone, especially park wolves. What caught my attention with his cougar hunt is that early on Gianforte and his press secretary, Brooke Stroyke, refused to answer simple media questions as rumors swirled.
Wanting to get the facts and to see if information provided by a couple of tipsters was accurate, I reached out to Stroyke on Jan. 4 and on three other occasions afterward. She said she would get back to me but didn’t, obviously believing that if she just blew off the media, the story would go away. It didn’t.
Earlier this month, The Washington Post published an article based on the same information provided by a tipster and Stroyke soon issued a public statement saying the Post reporter had published wrong facts. One of them being an allegation that the cat had been held in a tree for hours before Gianforte arrived to shoot it, which would be legal but is considered highly unethical.
Among other criticisms aimed at the governor, who has projected a public image of being a big game hunter, is that shooting a radio-collared wolf caught in a trap isn’t exactly sporting nor does it represent heroic hunting fair chase. And, legal or not, using dogs to pursue cougars, while an accepted practice, does not exactly require much hunting prowess in stalking the animal. Dogs tree the cat and all the hunter has to do is stand below and make a kill shot.
2021 was not only the year that the governor killed a Yellowstone wolf and cougar; it was a year when the Montana Legislature liberalized the hunting of wolves based on the false claims that wolves had severely depleted game herds statewide and were threatening the livestock industry. Along with setting high killing quotas for wolves, the Legislature wrote bills and Gianforte signed them into law that reversed longstanding prohibitions on practices judged by many generations of Montanans of both parties to violate fair-chase principles.
Made legal was night hunting using lights to shine animals, using dogs to chase bears, baiting wolves, and snares. Some 19 Yellowstone wolves were killed when they crossed the park’s invisible boundary into Montana, which stands in stark contrast to two park wolves allowed to be killed a year ago. In half a decade there had been just two livestock depredations by wolves, meaning lobos were not a huge threat to ranchers next to the park.
Part of the tally involves the fact that the park’s Phantom Lake Pack, which included pups of the year and yearlings, was destroyed. Gianforte has never provided a justification based on facts just as he dodged answering questions with his wolf and cougar kills.
The late respected Montana hunter, conservationist, author and employee of the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, Jim Posewitz, once said that politicians who hunt need to set the highest standards possible when it comes to transparency, accountability and ethics. Anything less sullies the reputation both of hunting and Montana.
When you are an elected public official, you answer to the public. If you are unwilling to do that, then it looks like you are trying to hide something.
Not long ago, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson penned a piece that condemned rising numbers of politicians brazenly acting in secrecy or behaving in ways that violate the public trust.
He didn’t single out Gianforte, but Nelson wrote: “All of these practices frustrate the right to know and the right of speech, expression and the press. All of these deprive We the People of fundamental rights that are constitutionally guaranteed ours to exercise and enjoy and which state actors are constitutionally not permitted to deprive, impair or to legislate away. All of these shenanigans are antithetical to transparent government.”
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399.