Quiz time - What’s the most popular place in the world to hunt trophy Bighorn Sheep?
Give yourself a pat on the back if you were thinking of Montana’s Missouri River Breaks National Monument. If you didn’t get the answer, don’t worry, you’re about to learn something else. The coulees and canyon lands of The Breaks Monument will still be a huge sporting destination one hundred years from now because it’s world-class habitat and our hunting traditions were protected by proclamation a decade ago.
Lewis and Clark first encountered The Breaks country of the monument on their westward leg. In his journal, Clark described the abundant wildlife of the area, including mule deer, elk, and antelope, and on April 29, 1805, the Lewis and Clark expedition recorded the first big horn sheep observation by non-Indians in North America. Lewis' description of the magnificent White Cliffs area on the western side of the monument is especially vivid, and not just for his sometimes-colorful spellings:
"The hills and river Clifts which we passed today exhibit a most romantic appearance. . . . The bluffs of the river rise to height of from 2 to 300 feet and in most places nearly perpendicular; they are formed of remarkable white sandstone which is sufficiently soft to give way readily to the impression of water . . .
"The water in the course of time . . . has trickled down the soft sand cliffs and worn it into a thousand grotesque figures, which with the help of a little imagination and an oblique view, at a distance are made to represent elegant ranges of lofty freestone buildings, having their parapets well stocked with statuary; columns of various sculptures both grooved and plain, are also seen supporting long galleries in front of these buildings; in other places on a much nearer approach and with the help of less imagination we see the remains or ruins of elegant buildings; some columns standing and almost entire with their pedestals and capitals; others retaining their pedestals but deprived by time or accident of their capitals, some lying prostrate and broken othe[r]s in the form of vast pyramids of conic structure bearing a series of other pyramids on their tops . . . (Proclamation 7398—Establishment of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, January 17, 2001).
Hunting the Breaks country is big deal. I can attest to this as both a hunter and commercial photographer who’s always on the lookout for the best hunting and wild game photographs in Montana. Last year alone sportsmen spent over 25,000 days in search of trophy elk, deer, and bighorn sheep in this popular ‘bread and butter’ hunting destination. But not everyone is as proud of our Breaks as the pick-up loads of sportsmen who make their annual migration to central Montana from all corners of our state, and nation.
President Trump recently took the podium to demonize Monuments like the Upper Missouri River Breaks in an attempt to gut the Antiquities Act and make it harder for Montanans to pass along our hunting heritage. Off his right shoulder stood the new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, a former Montana Congressmen, and resident. It’s well known that Zinke proclaims to be a “Roosevelt Republican.”
As I watched the press conference I could not help but wonder what was going through Zinke’s mind. He stood motionless and without expression as Trump tried to tear down our Nation's public lands legacy I began to wonder, is Zinke trying to figure out how he’s going to explain this to his home-boys back in Kalispell or is it deeper? Is he regretting his decision to ride for the Trump brand? Part of me feels sorry for him, but another part is asking, “who’s the real Ryan Zinke?”
Alternatively, he may have been thinking about his favorite elk hunting spot or fishing hole and how it might now be destroyed by a foolhardy decision - maybe Zinke’s feeling the pressure. Looks like the honeymoon’s over. The time for Hollywood’n-around on a horse is over. It's “gettin-real.”
Whatever the case, his stone-cold expressions have me wondering what’s going on inside his head. Is Mr. Zinke thinking about how hard it is to follow Trump, or how hard it will be to lead when his boss just wants him to keep his dally’s tight and drag the calf to the fire?
Excuse me for a moment while I talk directly to the man… Mr. Zinke, why are you working to undo the very tool that your self-proclaimed hero, President Theodore Roosevelt used to become the historical figure he now is, and the reason you hold him in such high esteem today?
Its decisions like these that have caused many folks like me to wonder who has the ear of our President? Whoever it is, I don’t think it's the public lands hunters because the evidence is clear, you and President Trump talk about public lands like it’s Eden, wrap yourself in hats, boots, and western romanticism, but then run roughshod through your glass house. It makes no sense. Maybe that’s what you were thinking while you were standing behind the President as he dissed our history, broke ranks with most westerners, and trashed our conservation hero.
I hope also that Secretary Zinke’s not got big plans to underhandedly loosen up protections to later return to his real estate roots and become the new leader of the public lands selloff initiative. I’m skeptical - real skeptical. So far I don't trust this new guy in office even though I was sure he’d do the right thing when he threw the leather on Little Texas, stuffed his saddle bags with jerky and gold dust, tied his slicker on, mounted up, tipped his black felt hat and hit the trail for Washington - wait, I thought the good guys wore silver-belly’s - hmm.
I think he’s faking it. So, what do we do about it? Congress just passed a law that makes it a federal crime to make up stories about your military duty and profit from the lies. So, as Zinke professes (and dresses up) like our conservation hero TR, to curry favor with the electorate, then turns tail, seems to me like we have a case. “Those who dishonor our military veterans, by misrepresenting or fabricating their own service for financial gain deserve to be punished.” Those were the words of Senator McCaskill about the new law. How is it any different when Zinke dress up like our conservation hero, commander and chief Teddy Roosevelt but then we find out he’s an imposter? In all seriousness, we need to send him a message.
Back to Montana and the Monument. Montana has one of the longest hunting season in the country because of the habitat security that roadless public lands provide for elk, mule deer, and other big game. If you lose your habitat, you’ve lost the headwaters of your hunting opportunity.
I suspect Zinke thinks he’s protecting Montanans from bureaucrats in Washington. It’s a nice gesture, but it ignores the Missouri River Breaks designation was a transparent and open public process which Montanans and our nation's citizens overwhelmingly supported. I’d say that’s local Mr. Zinke! In fairness, there are numerous Montana’s who remain discussed by the proclamation. I respect their views and in some cases, sympathize with them, however, a country like ours gets great by doing things that have a greater good for the greatest number, over the long-run.
I watched the Breaks monument process (maybe lived it is a better description) very carefully as past member and chair of the Central Montana Resources Advisory Council. I was at every meeting for three years and heard every issue first hand. Like you, I had to wrestle with making decisions, some of which might be counter to what some of my friends may desire.
The truth is that there are people who just don’t like the government, period, so it’s easy to get them fired up when you tell them the big bad government is taking away liberties, regardless of the facts.
Montanans are always going to need clean streams to fish in and wide open spaces to hunt. Our BLM prairie lands are central to healthy wildlife habitat. The rugged Missouri River Breaks provide wildlife habitat and solitude much like it was long before Lewis and Clark ever “discovered” the place. Our patriotic duty is to protect our country's heritage not to make short sided, mostly selfish decisions that in the long run will take that away from Montanans.
It’s time to draw the line. I was being patient and hoping, crossing my finger that Zinke was the right man, but clearly I was mistaken. Let’s remember what matters most. What legacy shall we leave our children and theirs? Public land, healthy wildlife habitat, open hunting for the common man is a tradition here and across the west. I wish to leave that legacy to my children and when this heritage is threatened by bad leadership decisions we need to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire. It is far better to manage wisely and preserve our intact systems than it is to dismantle and try to rebuild them later. Mr. Zinke, what will your legacy be?