Let the cat out of the bag, governor

March 3, 2022 4:24 am

Photo of a Mountain Lion in the Charles M. Russell refuge (Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

On the day Yellowstone National Park turned 150, we learned that Gov. Greg Gianforte had celebrated in his own Gianforte way: By shooting a mountain lion out of tree – one that had been tracked for research by park scientists.

It turns out that our state leader was taking a break from his busy schedule of criticizing the Biden administration and carefully scripting meetings of fawning fans during the holidays to have hounds chase the lion, tree it, and then have Gunslinger Greg knock the collared cat right out of the tree.

This time, no tickets were necessary, unlike that time last year he took out a trapped wolf. According to the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks, he had the necessary tag.

Some will defend the action as necessary to keep the mountain lion population under control. Others will say using hounds to tree a cat is just part of the hunt, as if frenzied dogs chasing a fleeing animal is somehow better because it’s the dogs, not the human who do the terrorizing.

I have a suggestion for our governor.

When Gianforte has held press conferences, his office is surrounded by trophy mounts, ostensibly from other things he’s trapped, treed, pummeled or killed. It looks like a veritable Cabela’s wildlife display over in the Governor’s Office. And that’s why I think this Yellowstone Park mountain lion that he bagged should make the centerpiece of the Governor’s Office.

I think he should get it mounted and have it on display so that everyone can see his – or his bloodhound’s – hunting prowess. I hope Yellowstone National Park also does one favor: Will they please give him the radio collar from the mountain lion? It wouldn’t be complete without the collar.

And, if scientists still want to track the progress and movement of the big cat the governor knocked off, they’ll be able to find it easily as it has moved from somewhere near Emigrant to somewhere in the Governor’s Office. And, changing the batteries on the tracking device should be much easier now, although there’s no telling how good the radio reception is in that big stone fortress of a Capitol.

But it hardly seems fair that Gianforte went to all the work to shoot an animal out of tree without getting a collar out of the deal. And, with the way Montana is going, there won’t be as many animals out there to collar.

Sure, any old rich guy can nab a mountain lion, but how many have a collared research mountain lion?

As much as I’d suggest the idea with equal parts disgust and dark humor, I wonder if putting a mounted lion with a radio collar on prominent display would be both appropriate and serious?

This isn’t the first time – or even the third time – that public wildlife managers and officials have criticized the state for its cavalier and heavy-hunting-handed approach to animal management.

The wolf that Gianforte famously trapped was also part of a researched wolf group from Yellowstone Park. And even as Montana was discussing the proper approach to gray wolf management, the superintendent of Yellowstone asked to reconsider hunting wolves around the park because of the research being done on them, and the tourism dollars generated in places like Montana because people come to the park, in part, to see these wild, even if elusive, creatures.

Gianforte ignored their requests and signed off on legislation that was akin to a hunting bonanza, drawing the ire and enmity of not just wildlife groups, but also some hunters’ groups who said the measures were too extreme and violated the ethics of fair chase.

Or, we could just put the damn mountain lion under the rotunda of the Capitol so there’s no mistaking that the Republicans are in charge, and these are the hunting measures they endorse. Let it be a warning to critters and liberals alike.

In many ways, killing off the same critters who draw more visitors than hunters has a poetic beauty to it – that we would rather kill that which makes this a wild, untamed place so that rich men from out-of-state can enjoy them stuffed in their private homes and offices. That is what Montana is becoming, folks, and the rest of the country is recognizing what we refuse to acknowledge: This new trend isn’t a good look for our state.

And that we would disregard the investment in science and research that our state and federal tax dollars have funded in order to better study and learn about these animals seems more than on-brand for 2022, which happens to be a moment in our history when science was fast enough and smart enough to figure a way around a pandemic, but instead we placed our individual freedoms above the health and well-being of our neighbors.

Why learn about animals when we can’t even take care of each other?

If we can’t expect a more thoughtful, selfless approach from our leaders when it comes to preventing the spread of a deadly disease, I suppose there’s not much hope for some overgrown housecat that just wandered out of Yellowstone at the wrong time.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.