Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Delisting Wolves, Part III: The Federal Government, “One of Us”, and Connecting with the Land

This is the third and final installment of my blog series on wolves and the 2012 Montana Senate race. Stay tuned for more blogs in the near future....

The dispute speaks volumes about the strategies pursued by both candidates and the constituencies they wooed. From Rehberg’s perspective, Tester intruded on turf long established to be his—turf that was rightfully his as a rancher, a defender of property rights, and as a committed state’s rights advocate. All were causes celebré among the right wing of his party and rural voters—Rehberg’s primary constituency who was essential to beating Tester. Furthermore, wolves was an issue on which Rehberg believed he had expertise.[1] It is not accidental that he called the wolf issue “his.” For Rehberg, this was a personal slight and he believed Tester unfairly elbowed him out of the picture.
                The stakes appeared higher for Tester, which is why he and the State Democratic Party aggressively accused Rehberg of exaggerating his role in wolf delisting. Fundamental to Tester’s argument was Rehberg’s ineffectiveness as a legislator. Tester’s bipartisan approach had gotten more stuff done for the state in a shorter period of time was the campaigns key assertion. In working with Congressman Simpson to push for the inclusion of language in the budget bill, Tester hoped to demonstrate that his legislative style made a difference on an issue highly salient to rural Montanans. To be sure, part of the reason Tester could have a seat at the negotiating table on the budget was simply because senators have more power than individual congressmen. Rehberg, as a House member, had less clout because although he was on the powerful appropriations committee—Simpson, not Rehberg—was chairman of the Interior subcommittee overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service and wolves. And as Rehberg would admit, it is the subcommittee chair that drives the appropriation process and gets the credit. Tester, as a senator, could not only be more of an issue generalist (as he was temperamentally), as one vote in a body of one hundred, he simply could apply more leverage on final bill language as they moved to final passage.
More important, however, is the fact that Tester—who was being painted as a liberal Democrat out of touch with Montana by Rehberg and a number of outside interest groups—needed credit on wolves to tamp down the impression that he was a radical environmentalist in the Muir tradition. Although environmental groups were part of Tester’s primary constituency, they were never thrilled with him because of his support for the Keystone XL Pipeline and his efforts to log more federal land. They likely supported him because he was less objectionable than Rehberg. Ultimately, however, Tester could not be painted as an extreme environmentalist and win reelection. His feet were firmly planted in the Pinchot, commodification camp as a farmer, and wolves was the perfect issue with which to cement those credentials. Furthermore, Tester’s approach to wolves from the beginning was centrist: to delist the wolves in places where they had recovered, but keep protections in place where they were not. For Tester, wolves was another way he could demonstrate his commitment to a Montana issue while finding some rare common ground and space on which to work out a compromise solution between two apparently resolute and determined groups. Dennison’s independent analysis, at the end of the day, suggests that both Rehberg and Tester jointly deserve credit. We may never know who was truly responsible for delisting wolves, but we do know how each campaign sought to frame the issue to advance their distinctive representational arguments about who was closer to and understood more the concerns of Montanans. Wolves mattered because it was an emblematic Montana issue cutting across the election constituencies of both Tester and Rehberg, which is exactly why both pushed so hard to be seen as the issue’s champion.

[1] Rehberg would tell me that running a ranch began with managing an ecosystem, and this meant thinking of the land holistically. Where on the ranch would you devote to making a living? Where did you need to protect important water or historic resources? Wolves and other predators were a management problem best handled by the folks on the ground according to the Congressman.

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