Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Director's Cut of Battle for the Big Sky: Tester, Rehberg, and Wolves

As we near the publication date, I've decided to tease you with material that didn't make it into the final cut. I'm calling this my "director's cut" of Battle for the Big Sky and hope it will keep you coming back for more....

When writing a book, you have to make tough choices editorially. My initial manuscript weighed in at 136,000 words and I was directed to shrink it to 100,000 words or less. This meant that a wonderful chapter I had written on the 2006 race between Conrad Burns and Jon Tester had to be dumped. 

It also meant that a discussion about wolves—and what the dispute between Tester and Rehberg on the issue said about representation, Montana, and the larger American West—had to go from chapter six. In anticipation of the book coming out this fall, I’ve decided to make available this credit claiming battle between the two concerning the delisting of the gray wolf on this website. It will give you a sense of my perspective on the race and, I hope, show the value of examining this campaign for understanding congressional representation more broadly.

Part I: Authenticity and the Land: The Case of Wolves
In many respects, the Tester-Rehberg campaign exhibited a number of similarities with other congressional campaigns unfolding during the 2012 cycle. The Rehberg game plan was to nationalize the election, and in that respect, was no different than the Senate campaigns of Republican challengers in Ohio, Missouri, or Pennsylvania. The Tester campaign’s contrasting Tester’s character with Rehberg’s echoed Democratic strategy not only in other congressional races, but in the presidential campaign as well. The most effective advertisements for the Obama campaign blasted Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital, his investments in companies that shipped American jobs overseas, and his lack of empathy as epitomized by remarks made at a closed door fundraiser. Romney claimed that “47 percent [of Americans], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it . . . [T]hey will vote for this president no matter what.”[1] Mitt Romney does not care about you was the message from the Obama campaign. Neither does “Dennis” Rehberg was the constant refrain from Tester and the Montana Democratic Party.[2]
Given that the Montana Senate campaign primed a set of issues (healthcare reform, spending, and the debt) and established frames (party versus personality) indicative of other races in other states, in some ways it is surprising that a particularly Montana issue elicited one of the biggest tussles between Tester and Rehberg during the summer of 2011. Specifically, the issue concerned efforts to remove the gray wolf from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act and handing species management over to the states. Other states wrestled with wolf recovery and management, but to think that two U.S. Senate candidates would grapple fiercely over the issue is probably unfathomable to voters elsewhere. And it was an issue on which the two candidates essentially agreed: The wolf should be removed from federal protection and Montana given management responsibilities. The controversy over who rightly deserved credit for wolf delisting is emblematic of not only the broader conflict between preservationists and extractionists ongoing throughout the American West.[3] It is emblematic of the representational styles and relationships crafted by both candidates centering on their relationship to Montana, the land, and rural values. It was about who had the right to claim rural Montana as their own and demonstrate who was more genuinely reflective of the state’s core cultural values. It was also about legislative effectiveness in support of those values. In Richard Fenno’s language, the gray wolf represented all three representational styles rolled into one: policy expert, constituent servant, and “one of us”.[4]
The gray wolf “long the most despised predator in North America” had been rendered virtually extinct in the lower 48 states by the 1950s.[5] In the West, the gray wolf had been eradicated by the 1930s and wolves had not been seen in Yellowstone Park since 1924. Montana played a direct hand in the species’ elimination by providing a taxpayer-funded bounty for wolf pelts.[6] The species received the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and in the mid-1990s, a program reintroduced the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park. This proved controversial as the animal engenders “a deeply-seated animosity . . . among a minority of Americans.”[7]
That animosity is particularly acute in the West and Montana specifically. Ecologically, the reintroduction succeeded: According to a recent estimate from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 6,100 gray wolves roam the contiguous United States, most residing within the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.[8] Given population recovery, Western politicians spearheaded an effort to remove the wolf from the list of species afforded protections under the Endangered Species Act and return management to the states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service complied with the issuance of a rule returning management of the Northern Rocky Mountain Gray wolf populations to Idaho and Montana in 2009.
In the American West, wolf reintroduction pits contradictory visions against each other: “[P]reservation versus use of resources, recreation-based economies versus extraction-dependent economies, urban versus rural values, and states’ rights versus federalism.”[9] University of Montana Professor of Natural Resource Policy Martin Nie writes that “some see the wolf, and the danger it poses to livestock, as yet another assault on rural communities.”[10] Worse, it is an attempt by the remote and faceless federal government to impose urban values on rural communities, urban values eroding the distinctive rural culture of the West. “Wolf restoration” continues Nie, “will be seen as yet one more example—from the move towards corporate agriculture to falling beef prices—of what little regard the government has for a quickly disintegrating culture. As one rancher informed me, while international markets and corporatization can be quite complex, wolves are relatively simple and can fit straight into the scope of a rifle.”[11] As self-avowed defenders of Montana’s rural culture, Tester the farmer and Rehberg the rancher together viewed the wolf as a threat. And, as they both saw their primary constituencies as rooted in rural America, each wanted to claim exclusive credit for protecting the interests of agriculturalists against Washington bureaucrats bent on ruining livelihoods already suffering under the weight of unpredictable weather, fickle crop and commodity prices, and increased taxes.[12]
To be continued….

[1] Gregory Korte. “Romney: Obama Voters ‘Believe they are Victims.” USA Today, September 17, 2012.
[2] The Tester campaign pointedly referred to Denny as “Dennis” throughout the campaign. I explain why in the book.
[3] This is discussed in detail in chapter 2 of Battle for the Big Sky.
[4] See Fenno’s book Home Style.
[5] Knowing Yellowstone: Science in America’s First National Park. Jerry Johnson, editor. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010.
[6] Chronology of the Gray Wolf in Montana. Billings Gazette. January 16, 2002.
[7] Martin A. Nie. “The Sociopolitical Dimensions of Wolf Management and Restoration in the United States.” Human Ecology Review 8(2000): 1-12.
[8] Lenny Bernstein. “Gray Wolf to Lose Endangered Species Protection as Numbers Rise.” Washington Post, June 7, 2013.
[9] Nie, “The Sociopolitical Dimensions”, 1.
[10] Ibid., 7.
[11] Ibid., 8.
[12] Ibid.

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