The images are arresting: An ATV stops in a sunny meadow filled with knee-high grasses. Its driver, a young woman, removes her helmet and looks directly into the camera, a strip of black duct tape stretched across her mouth. A bird hunter in full camouflage is likewise muzzled by tape, as is a fisherman on a riverbank, an older couple backed by snowy mountains and a rancher beside horse corrals.
Meanwhile, an ominous voiceover describes House Bill 1505 – “a plan that gives the Department of Homeland Security complete control over millions of acres of Montana public lands.” It implores viewers to contact the bill’s co-sponsor, Republican Dennis Rehberg, Montana’s sole U.S. House representative, warning: “We’d have no say if Rehberg gets his way.”
This 30-second commercial and a similar one aired for three weeks last October in and around Billings, Missoula and Kalispell, at a cost of more than $200,000. Media buys of that size are to be expected heading into a big election year: Rehberg is challenging Sen. Jon Tester, D, in a race that could decide the Senate’s balance.
What is surprising, however, is who paid for the ads: Montana Hunters and Anglers Action. MHAA is a 501(c)(4), a nonprofit that, under federal law, can spend money to support or oppose candidates without disclosing its donors.
Political activism among hunters and anglers is nothing new, in Montana or nationwide. But the 6-month-old MHAA exemplifies a more particular modern trend. Over the last 10 years, conservation-minded hunters and anglers have attempted to put environmental stewardship back at the center of sportsmen’s political agenda. And lately, a few groups, such as MHAA, have become increasingly aggressive.
Following the strategic lead of secretive entities like Crossroads GPS - Karl Rove’s conservative 501(c)(4), which uses political advertising to influence elections - they’re spending money to elect individuals who champion large-scale land and wildlife conservation, and to defeat those who don’t.
“At the end of the day, these politicians like being elected,” MHAA president Land Tawney remarks on an icy January day as he carries his 3-year-old daughter Cidney up a Missoula hiking trail. “If you help get a champion elected or if you beat someone based on their bad record, that’s when the true power starts to come.”
Tawney, 37, has a ruddy complexion and a trim orange beard. He’s worked on sportsmen’s issues since earning his undergraduate degree in wildlife biology from the University of Montana in 2000. As a senior manager for the National Wildlife Federation, he works primarily on reforming federal mining law.
Land’s father, Phil – a former executive director of the Montana Democratic Party – founded the state’s first political action committee for sportsmen, the Montana Hunters and Anglers PAC, about 30 years ago. When he died in 1995, the organization stagnated. But in 2009, Land began to rebuild it.
In 2010, it focused on a legislative race in Billings, supporting Democratic state Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, who was challenging Republican Roy Brown for his state Senate seat. Van Dyk, former chairman of the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee in the state’s House of Representatives, touted his sponsorship of the state’s 2009 stream-access law, which clarifies the public’s right to access streams passing through private property from public bridges.
Brown, a former petroleum engineer, ran on his business credentials, but struggled to shake his oil-industry connections, which hamstrung his 2008 gubernatorial bid. Tawney’s PAC paid for one TV ad and several mailers, including an oversized postcard that depicted Van Dyk posing at river’s edge with a freshly caught fish. The other side showed a poodle wearing a Brown banner beneath the words: “Roy Brown: That Dog Don’t Hunt.”
Other PACs and donors jumped in as well, and the contest became the most expensive legislative race in state history, with over $200,000 spent. Van Dyk won in a recount by just four votes.
Van Dyk, now vice president of the MHAA, says the race’s momentum carried into the 2011 legislative session. The stream-access law, which is popular with anglers, was challenged by a bill that passed the House and faced a hearing in the Senate. A large crowd was anticipated, so the hearing was moved to the old Supreme Court Chambers of the state capital building.
“When you walked in that room, you knew what was going to happen,” Van Dyk says. “Those guys were pissed.” More than 300 opponents showed up, and the bill failed to move any further.
“At that point, I realized the magnitude of this constituency,” he says. “We needed to have a more organized voice.” A year and a half later, he and Tawney filed the paperwork for MHAA to become a 501(c)(4). Within weeks, they were running ads criticizing Rehberg. Tawney says the group will spend more on that race, but won’t disclose how much or the source of the funds.
MHAA board member George Cooper argues that sportsmen are building political power not only because of the community’s size – 14.5 million people hunt and 28 million fish in the U.S. – but because of its increasing diversity.
“For a long time, it was assumed that we were beholden to one party and only cared about a handful of issues,” says Cooper, a government-affairs consultant at a private firm and the former president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), a Washington D.C.-based national sportsmen’s coalition. “But we’ve come a long way.”
In the early 1970s, the emergence of anti-hunting animal-rights groups and the rapid institutionalization of grassroots environmental organizations created a rift between urban environmentalists and rural sportsmen. It widened in the 1980s, when the Republicans won over many sportsmen through their uncompromising gun-rights advocacy, while framing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups as self-righteous and disconnected.
Eventually, “environmentalist” became a derisive moniker for a silo full of people with liberal positions and weak grassroots credentials. But the divide began to close during George W. Bush’s first term, when many sportsmen were alarmed by unprecedented oil and gas development in the Rocky Mountain West and plans to sell off public land.
“You had enough unhappiness from some sportsmen after the first three years or so of President Bush’s first term that (John) Kerry’s people sensed a potential opportunity,” Cooper says. “Field and Stream did interviews with both Kerry and Bush. That hadn’t happened before. That was the first time in modern political history you had both presidential candidates making such an effort to court sportsmen.”
Environmentalists seized the opportunity. TRCP was founded (originally as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance) in 2000 with funding from the Pew Environment Group, a branch of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has funded progressive causes since the late 1940s. It initially sought to harness sportsmen’s frustration in order to protect roadless areas.
Since then, its agenda, which is largely consistent with that of mainstream environmental groups, has grown to include protecting conservation funding in the Farm Bill, reforming outdated federal mining laws and educating sportsmen about the impacts of climate change on wildlife. Cooper, as TRCP’s first communications director, worked to convince elected officials that sportsmen had a wide range of concerns, from habitat conservation, which is typically viewed as a Democratic cause, to gun rights, an issue long considered Republican political property.
“We’re not monolithic,” he explains. A recent Colorado College poll of 1,100 voters in six Western states confirmed these complexities, finding that sportsmen are twice as likely to identify as Republican, yet 69 percent of anglers and 66 percent of hunters describe themselves as conservationists, a group with scant representation in today’s Republican Party.
Political diversity is also evident in the range of groups that claim to represent sportsmen’s interests: TRCP leans left on the spectrum, while groups like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation trend more to the right and advocate for aggressive predator control, especially of wolves - also one of Rehberg’s favorite talking points. MHAA, which seeks to convince a traditionally conservative community that Democratic candidates are a safer bet for conservation, occupies ground much closer to that of TRCP.
Cooper believes this political tension among sportsmen is healthy: “Now you have both Democrats and Republicans at any given time vying for our votes, and that’s where you want to be.”
And MHAA isn’t the only (c)(4) strictly focused on hunting and fishing; there is at least one other, Bull Moose Sportsmen, formed in 2010 by a Denver-based nonprofit called the Bull Moose Sportsmen Alliance. In 2010, Bull Moose Sportsmen endorsed Colorado candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House, governor and state Legislature, choosing five Republicans and eight Democrats.
“Elk and native trout couldn’t care less whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” says Gaspar Perricone, co-director of both groups.
Bull Moose Sportsmen developed a database of more than 180,000 voters likely to support its platform, which includes tax incentives for conservation easements and increased funding for native fish habitat, and communicated with them through direct mail and email, while using paid advertising to reach beyond that base. Twelve of the 13 endorsed candidates won, including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet - a Democrat who won by 1 percent of the vote - after the group spent nearly $100,000 on his behalf.
The organization has already sent out issue surveys to candidates in Montana, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico to determine their endorsements and influence even more elections in 2012.
Land Tawney also hopes to build on past successes, like the defense of Montana’s stream-access law. He stops at a switchback on the west-facing slope of Mount Sentinel, lifting his daughter out of a backpack carrier.
“I remember hiking up mountains like this with my dad, going after elk and walking in each one of his footprints because it was the easiest thing to do up these steep mountains.” His gaze follows Cidney as she tests the crusty snowpack just off the slick trail.
“There is a constituency here that counts,” he says. “This isn’t being built for one issue or one race. This group is being built for real change that will stand the test of time.”
This story originally appeared in the May 28 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).