Ryan Busse

All Montanans have seen the bumper stickers and heard the chatter warning potential newcomers against changing Montana. This proud defense of our state often emanates from folks a lot like me; from hunters, anglers—people who love to hike our mountains and camp in the backcountry.

Most of us have been quoting those bumper stickers assuming that any change would probably come from interlopers in rainbow-painted VW vans, or maybe from dangerously liberal urban yuppies with their shiny new electric vehicles and brand-new Montana plates.

Montanans like us put up with our jobs all week just so we can hit the river on the weekends. We wear camo to the grocery store and show up at the bar for celebratory beers because of the hard-won elk in the back of our trucks. And while we’ve been right to protect what we care about; we’ve been very wrong about which people are focused on attacking our way of life. We can now see that those attacks are coming from fellow Montanans who should know better: Governor Greg Gianforte and his loyal Republican allies in the Montana Legislature.

There is little debate about what makes Montana special.

“They ain’t moving to Montana for our Wal-Marts,” former Governor Bullock was fond of saying.

For so many Montanans like me, a huge part of what makes this place special is our equal opportunity to world-class hunting and fishing. We know it all relies on the resource management system that ensures equal access for everyone.

This is all worth protecting because we fought like hell for it. Generations before us re-established decimated wildlife populations and then insisted on management and conservation programs prohibiting what jeopardized them in the first place, namely commercialization and profit.

The system that our state perfected strictly prohibits special treatment for the rich. It places wildlife in a “public trust” equally owned by all. Montanans even wrote it into our constitution:

“The opportunity to harvest wild fish and wild game animals is a heritage that shall forever be preserved to the individual citizens of the state.”

We went so far as to establish programs like Habitat Montana, which uses public funds to facilitate land purchases and perpetual easements, thereby ensuring access for everyone.

Thanks to our laws and these systems, which for decades were supported by bipartisan majorities, Montana has been a beacon for what is called “The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.” The results of strict adherence to this model have created one of the most important places left on our planet. Our public lands belong to all of us, equally.

In fact, our state is one of the few remaining places where private-jet owners and billionaire media tycoons have no advantage over diesel mechanics, schoolteachers or farmhands. For my family, and for thousands of other Montanans, this is democracy in its most tangible form. We are right to be angry and fearful about losing it.

Beginning two years ago, Gianforte supported a myriad of bills and pushed FWP regulatory efforts aimed at privatizing our wildlife and awarding special preference to wealthy out-of-staters at the expense of ordinary Montana residents.

If your elk spot seems crowded, well, that’s because Gianforte approved more than several thousand new non-resident licenses at the behest of those who think our wildlife is just about money. They are doing the bidding of powerful forces who wish to sell our elk and other wildlife—sometimes for more than $10,000 per hunter.

It's now clear that it is Gianforte and his GOP allies who are changing Montana for the worse by insisting on pushing privatization schemes deployed in other states, especially Texas.

With our legislative session in full swing and a new Republican supermajority in place, there is a new wave of bills aimed at our iconic wildlife and conservation systems. Some propose selling more wildlife for profit. There will be calls for even more non-resident licenses and more handouts to wealthy landowners. Some Gianforte-supported predator management policies already in place violate the most-basic tenets of fair chase hunting. It's all part of the GOP’s effort to remake Montana into one of those places we all say we don’t want to be.

Out-of-state forces aren’t doing this; it's our own Governor and Legislature causing these problems. They are the ones who have declared war on our Montana way of life, and it's time we stood up and redirected our warnings their way. We are all responsible for telling them: “Don’t you dare change what makes this state so special.”

Ryan Busse lives in Kalispell with his family. He is the former board chairman for Montana Conservation Voters, Former North American Chairman for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Former advisor to the United States Senate Sportsmen's Caucus, and current member of the United States Department of Interior and Agriculture Hunting and Wildlife Conservation Council.