As rifle season begins, Tester targets sportsmen in tight Senate race
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, E&E
Roughly half a million Montanans are expected to go to the polls Nov. 6 or vote as absentees.
But first, many will harvest an elk.
Saturday marked the beginning of rifle season here in Montana, a state where 100,000 hunters were expected to venture into the wilds this weekend in search of mule deer and elk, with others seeking pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep or even a wolf.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whom Republicans see as political big game for control of the Senate, has pushed harder than almost any other Democrat for hunters and anglers, whose votes will be critical in a tight race with Rep. Denny Rehberg (R).
"We're going to continue to work for habitat, access to that habitat, and make sure we have clean air and clean water so we have big game to shoot," Tester said at a rally last week at his campaign's field office in Billings. "We are on the cusp of passing the best sportsmen's bill in a generation, and we're going to get it done."
The "Sportsmen's Act" (S. 3525), to which he referred, will be the Senate's first order of business when it convenes next month, after it easily cleared a procedural hurdle in September (Greenwire, Sept. 24).
In his first six years as a senator, Tester also passed language to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf, a boogeyman for elk and moose hunters here, and has pushed bills to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a top priority for sportsmen of all political stripes.
Experts say Tester stands a good chance of winning over some traditionally Republican hook-and-bullet voters.
One case in point: The National Rifle Association, which endorsed then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R) over Tester in 2006, has yet to endorse either candidate in Montana, just two weeks before Election Day.
Rehberg received an A-plus rating from the group, while Tester's A-minus is likely due to his votes for Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, who are viewed as anti-gun.
The NRA is known to give some deference to incumbents, but in an election where a Tester loss could hand the Senate to Republicans -- who are seen as stronger on gun rights -- tradition could be trumped.
"I think [Tester will] have a lot better time than your average Democrat, because so much of his time in the Senate, so much of his record has been geared towards supporting those things," said Robert Saldin, a political science professor at the University of Montana, Missoula.
"He's fought hard on gun rights and, more broadly, for hunters and fishermen. I think he should do really well with that constituency," he added. "In fact, I think he's been able to push back a little bit and charge that Denny Rehberg hasn't been as big a supporter on these things as he has, and it's not a totally implausible case to make."
Sportsmen aligned with conservationists here have hammered Rehberg for supporting a bill by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that would eliminate roadless protections across millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. Groups have also run TV ads blasting Rehberg's support of a bill to exempt the Department of Homeland Security from environmental laws along the state's Canadian border.
"If they're voting for Rehberg, they need their head examined," said Bill Geer, who leads a climate change initiative at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and, in his personal time, has volunteered at a phone bank for the Tester campaign.
But despite Tester's best efforts, hunters here remain divided over the race.
Many definitions of 'access'
On Saturday afternoon, the bloodied carcass of a bull elk sat in the back of Wayne Theme's pickup truck on Highway 191 on the Gallatin River. The antlers on its severed head were being examined by a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks official to determine its age and the condition of its habitat.
The elk -- shot by Theme's youngest daughter -- will provide his family with about 180 pounds of meat, he estimated. He'll have to shoot about two more to keep his freezer stocked this year.
"We don't eat beef, we don't eat anything, we just eat wild game, 100 percent elk and deer," he said, his hands caked with dirt and blood from the freshly harvested animal.
Theme, who lives in nearby Gallatin Gate, said he'd like to see less federal regulation of lands and wildlife in his state. He complained that the Forest Service has closed roads and trails, and that the agency has blamed people like him who hunt on horseback.
He said this year's Senate race is a tough call and that both candidates appear to support sportsmen's issues.
"I've heard that Rehberg's done it, I've heard that Tester's done it. I don't know which one to believe, tell you the truth," he said. "I talk to a lot of friends who know Tester really well from Great Falls, and they say they wouldn't trust him any as far as they could throw him, but it's the same aspect with Rehberg, too."
James Muhlbeier, who works for Montana Troutfitters, a fly fishing shop in Bozeman, said he'll be voting for Rehberg, as will the majority of sportsmen in the state.
But he said there's a huge split among sportsmen, especially in western Montana, in towns like Bozeman and ski areas where there are fewer rancher types and more seasonal hunters.
"They know their demographic," he said of Tester and Rehberg. "Neither of them is going to say, 'I don't support gun rights or hunting access,' because in Montana you're not going to get elected. It's as blunt as that."
Muhlbeier, who was born in Hardin in eastern Montana, is also concerned with road closures on national forests, which he said limit access for seniors and his father, who is an amputee.
Mark Spaulding, a banker in Bozeman who said he owns a gun but no longer hunts, said sportsmen in Montana are very polarized and feel threatened by things outside the state. Those in cities like Missoula or Bozeman, he said, may have different views from those in rural areas where hunting elk and deer is a matter of survival.
"You have your cookie-cutter hunter here, and then you have this new guy. You see it here, you see it in Alaska quite a bit, and he's a pretty hip guy, maybe a climber, skier, white-water rafter," Spaulding said. "He's also a hunter and a big gun advocate, but if you see him walking down the street, he's not wearing your standard plaid jacket, Elmer Fudd kind of guy."
Spaulding said Tester's support of President Obama and other Democratic legislation will hurt him in the state. He, too, said hunting access is critical for Montanans.
"Even if people don't hunt here, it's a big deal to them," he said. "I know people who go out hunting with their friends and might take only one or two shells with them. They're not interested in killing anything, but they just want to go along. They like to know there's a right to do it. It's part of why people live in Montana."
According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, about two out of 10 hunters will shoot an elk this season. About three out of every five hunters will stock their freezer with Montana-grown venison.
Roughly half of those animals will be culled from public lands -- including up to 25 million acres of national forest and BLM lands and seven federal wildlife refuges, FWP said. It's those lands where Tester has focused much of his efforts.
Tester, who is the Democratic Senate co-chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, has made hunting and angling issues one of the keystones of his campaign. His Republican co-chairman, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), incidentally, stumped for Rehberg in Montana last week.
At Tester's fourth, and final, debate with Rehberg here Saturday night, the farmer from rural Big Sandy repeatedly said that he supports "veterans, sportsmen and women."
"I've had sportsmen come up to me and say, 'You know what, we can have the best habitat in the world, and if we can't get access to it, it doesn't do us any good for hunting and fishing,'" he said at the end of the hourlong debate. "And so we've worked, we've worked not only to increase the number of acres of habitat, but to also make sure there's access to it."
His sportsmen's bill would set aside federal funding to purchase access routes for hunters, renew the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and expand the Fish and Wildlife Service's ability to issue waterfowl permits over the Internet, among other provisions.
His campaign's Sportsmen and Sportswomen for Tester group has more than 1,000 followers on Facebook.
Tester's campaign has also recently launched TV ads featuring a Republican from Libby supporting Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act," which seeks to designate new wilderness and promote logging in Montana's Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests.
While the bill is backed by the National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wilderness Association, Tester's support of environmental causes -- not to mention his acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the League of Conservation Voters -- has become a political liability in the race.
For many sportsmen, the term "environmentalist" is a bad word. They associate green groups with lawsuits that block timber sales -- which can restore wildlife habitat -- and that successfully blocked the delisting of the wolf.
Sportsmen and gun advocates are mixed on the issue of wilderness, which forbids the use of motorized travel, including game carts. The NRA and Safari Club International have backed H.R. 1581, McCarthy's bill to lift roadless protections, while the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Montana Wildlife Federation all oppose it. Backcountry hunters say roads impair habitat for elk.
Rehberg supporters at Saturday's debate said Tester appears out of touch with Montana sportsmen and gun owners.
"The Second Amendment is important because it gives every individual in the United States the right to rise up against a bad government," said Don Hart, a native of Cut Bank who spent 20 years in the military and now volunteers for Rehberg from his home in Bozeman. "I've seen Denny's ratings from Gun Owners of America. Rehberg's is an A. Tester's is F. He really isn't a sportsman in the way he tries to make people believe."
Tester has also faced criticism for supporting U.S. EPA regulations blamed for the planned shuttering of a coal-fired power plant in Billings (Greenwire, Oct. 19).
But at Saturday's debate, Tester said clean air and water equal jobs in Montana, where tourism, including hunting and fishing, generated $3 billion in economic activity last year, according to industry leaders at a Voices of Montana Tourism round table last month in Kalispell.
According to FWP, deer and elk hunters are expected to spend more than 2 million collective days afield in 2012, and will likely spend more than $200 million in Montana this hunting season. And their votes may sway the Senate election.