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Fish & Wildlife Social Values

The Story of Fish and Wildlife in the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian 1961-2001: An Interpretive Textual Analysis

Joe Champ
Colorado State University
Dan McCollum
USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station

Introduction: The Point of this Research

The report you are reading now is just one piece of the broader “Montana Challenge” Project, a collaboration of natural resource managers, researchers, and academics interested in better understanding fish and wildlife management in the new social and economic landscape of Montana. The hope is that, by coordinating efforts of a diverse group of frontline practitioners and backline researchers, we can provide new perspectives on the last forty years of societal maintenance and change in Montana—and specifically—the role of the concept known as ‘fish and wildlife’ in Montana’s culture. Ultimately, it is hoped that these investigations will be more than research for its own sake, and that we will provide information that will be useful for fish and wildlife managers.

The Montana Challenge Project has drawn together people with known expertise and interests in the areas of…

  • Demographic/Population Composition
  • Economic Structure/Composition
  • Political Institutions & Structure
  • Land Use
  • Tourism
  • Agency Interactions with the Public
  • Social & Cultural Values

This particular report focuses on the last topic area: ‘Social and Cultural Values’. We are assuming that social and cultural values underlie the social and economic conditions in society that form the backdrop or context in which natural resource use and management occur. And so we ask: how do we measure social and cultural values over time to get a handle on how values specifically associated with fish and wildlife values have evolved in Montana? We take 3 approaches:

  • Social/Cultural Values 1: Social Surveys & Structure
  • Social/Cultural Values 2: Nonmarket Economic Valuation Studies
  • Social/Cultural Values 3: Newspapers

This is a report of an ongoing study of the third value category listed above. We are assuming that natural resources and natural resource management are issues that are regularly discussed in the news media. Obviously, more formal news stories, public interest pieces, editorials, and letters-to-the-editor can offer insight into the public discussion of natural resources issues such as those involving fish and wildlife – but we also wondered about other, perhaps less formal, texts. For instance, what about humorous drawings with captions, such as a Gary Larson comic? What is the role of feature articles and photos in how we think about fish and wildlife? What about advertisements for hunting and fishing gear? What does it mean that sports headlines regularly announce the success and failure of such Montana athletic teams as the Grizzlies, Bobcats, Cougars, Bears, Bearcubs, Hawks, Wildcats, Rams, Bighorns, Bruins, Wolves, Falcons, and Eagles? [see Figure 1]

As is clear in the title of this report, we compare the presentation of issues related to Montana fish and wildlife in the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian newspapers. Why these particular publications? From historical, demographic, economic, political, geographic, agricultural, and even meteorological perspectives, it can be argued that Montana is made up of three distinct regions: the Western third, the central third, and the Eastern third.  The various investigators involved in the Montana Challenge project have utilized these regional concepts for comparative purposes. For instance, looking at a newspaper circulation map for the state of Montana [Figure 2], one can identify at least one major paper in each of these regions. We have selected the Missoulian to the west, the Great Falls Tribune in the central, and the Billings Gazette in the east. Although there is obviously overlap across regions, especially in the case of the state’s largest paper, the Billings Gazette, we are assuming that an examination of the story of fish and wildlife in each of these publications might reveal something more about the identities of these regions—how the human relationship with fish and wildlife has stayed the same and/or changed over time, and what that might tell us about the challenges natural resource managers and greater society face in the task of administering Montana’s natural environment.

It should be noted that there are drawbacks to studying newspaper coverage. As archaeologist Ian Hodder (1998) warned, it can be difficult, even impossible, to understand anything about the significance of historical material culture outside of the context in which it was produced and used. Because it may have been produced long before the research is undertaken, it may not be possible to engage in any sort of dialogue with those who created and/or used it, and even if such people survive, memories quickly fragment, idealize, or demonize the meaning of the texts. And what, Hodder asked, is ‘meaning’? Do our interpretations of texts capture the essence of what they meant to those who lived with them? Or, do they tell us more about our own contemporary culture than the culture that created them?

Despite such questions, Hodder argues that there is still great value in attempting to interpret written texts. “Such evidence,” Hodder wrote, “unlike the spoken word, endures physically and thus can be separated across space and time from its author, producer, or user” (date, p. 110). Access can be easy, low cost, and scheduled at the researcher’s convenience. This is perhaps not more true than in the case of newspapers such as the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian which, over the years, have been carefully photographed and stored on microfilm at various collection sites, such as the Montana State Historical Society, from which this research is a result. Hodder went on to point out that such material analyses, in concert with investigations based on other methods, can result in a more complete “full sociological analysis” (p. 113). What is more, oftentimes material culture may provide insights into social groups that did not have the privilege in their time of ‘writing history’. Their stories may remain untold until an enterprising researcher sleuths them out of “mute material evidence” (p. 114).

Methods: How We Planned to Go About Doing This

Having established that newspapers could be a worthwhile place to look, we needed a strategy for using them to draw out social and cultural values over time about fish and wildlife. We needed to come up with a way to draw from the massive amount of evidence provided by a daily newspaper. We decided to sample from the years 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, and 2001. Because the Montana legislature meets biannually on odd years, we thought we might capture a sense of the political discussion about fish and wildlife. These ‘1’ years also immediately followed the census years and we thought it would be handy to compare census data with trends and patterns that emerged in the newspapers. Still, five years of daily newspapers represented a mountain of material. We further broke down our sample by looking at papers in three two week periods, including:

  • The first 14 days in January (this is early in the legislative session, as well as a time of reflection on the past year, and a looking forward to the assumed key issues of the next year).
  • The first 14 days in March (later in the legislative session).
  • And the last 14 days in September (pre- or early hunting season).

Scanning every page of even a highly defined sample like this one would have still created an unmanageable amount of material, so those reviewing and scanning the newspapers were asked to look for any texts that might in some way be remotely related to fish and wildlife. Suggested topic areas included:

  • Fish and Wildlife
  • Resource agency policy
  • Forest/Wildfire management
  • Recreation
  • Water issues
  • Mining
  • Petroleum
  • Timber
  • Tourism
  • Environmental spirituality
  • Hunting/Fishing
  • Development
  • Agriculture
  • Parks
  • Politics
  • Animals
  • Features of the West
  • Obituaries
  • Advertisements
  • Sports headlines
  • Cartoons

We knew there would undoubtedly be a great deal of overlap, but we also knew that this wide net would pull in a tremendous amount of material that could later be sifted for more evidence. Early on we considered further easing the task by scanning the sampled newspapers into a computer, using text recognition software to converting sections of the files into digital text, then using a computer search function to count the incidence of words and phrases related to fish and wildlife issues. Unfortunately, the images captured from the microfilm were too ‘noisy’—peppered with errant marks and dense text and graphics—and were not suitable for computer recognition. We were left analyzing the texts the old-fashioned way: reading, categorizing, and looking for emergent patterns. No small task with more than 6000 separate texts scanned into the computer.

“Findings”: Indications Emerging from our Research

The term ‘findings’ is in quotes in the heading because qualitative researchers do not feel comfortable declaring the fruits of their labors to be generalizable Truths (with a capital ‘T’). We believe that the term ‘indications’, or perhaps ‘reasoned arguments’, better represents the product of this sort of research, which the reader is encouraged to accept or reject based on his or her assessment of the way the investigation was carried out, the supporting evidence presented, and the resulting conclusions. These indications should then be included or rejected in future thinking about the topic; they should, perhaps, guide decision-making in future research efforts. We will now present our conclusions as numbered preliminary indications.

Indication #1—The story of fish and Wildlife has been important for the Missoulian and Billings Gazette

If the texts presented in these relatively significant daily newspapers represent any sort of barometer of significant social values, then fish and wildlife would appear to be a central component of Montana’s culture. This was true in every sample period of both the Billings Gazette and the Missoulian. Our sample turned up what we came to call ‘unscrupulous predator’ tales [Figure 3] and ‘conquest of nature’ stories [Figure 4]. Such texts had largely disappeared in samples from later years. But what would remain throughout the sampled years, eventually blossoming into fullfledged weekly ‘Outdoors’ sections (see Indication #4), are the hunting and fishing related features that offer practical advice for landing the trophy fish, bagging the multi-point buck, and realizing just how special the experience could be. [Figure 5 and 6] But even in the 1961 sample there were many more links between fish and wildlife and the lives of Montanans. There were also stories of children [Figure 7, 8, and 9]. Fish and wildlife were clearly more than challenges to be overcome, and resources to be harvested. In many cases, they were a principal component of family identity.

And there is evidence that these stories of fish and wildlife could also be about more than hunting and fishing. The 1961 samples revealed reports where fish and wildlife were valued for aesthetic reasons—celebrated for their own sake, such as a 1961 Gazette feature about the winter beauties of Yellowstone National Park [Figure 10]. The 1961 samples even disclosed a nascent wilderness discourse—the idea that land should be set aside and used only very carefully by humans, if at all. That year, the Missoulian ran a long story with a sophisticated map on efforts to establish the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness area [Figure 11], and a wilderness discourse is evident in a in a pair of news stories and letters-to-the-editor in March, 1961 editions of Billings Gazette [Figure 12]. It is important to point out, however, that in all of these cases, it is argued that wilderness should be set aside for humans. The focus is human needs rather than the needs of the fish and wildlife that inhabit wilderness areas.

Indication #2—Fish and wildlife have not always been elements of Missoulian and Billings Gazette natural resource development stories

In addition to pointing out where and how fish and wildlife topics appeared in the early samples of the Missoulian and Billings Gazette, it is equally enlightening, especially when considering more contemporary Montana newspaper treatments of the topics, where they did not. In stories about agriculture, lumbering, petroleum development, mining, and water issues, fish and wildlife were not a consideration in 1961. In each case [see examples in Figure 13], the story is expressed in terms of production, reports on farmers and ranchers increasing their yields, the number of new wells drilled, tons of ore processed, or, in reports of the numerous dam construction projects throughout the state in 1961, enthusiastic updates on the ability of engineers to successfully and relatively inexpensively hold back rushing rivers, harnessing their power to create value out of raw materials that meant livelihoods and better lives for Montanans.

However, our newspaper samples from 1971 revealed a change in the way resource extraction stories were reported. Perhaps in line with a growing societal-concern for the environment [Figure 14], the ’71 sample contained accounts and quite pointed images of environmental degradation reportedly by the hands of industry [Figure 15]. Despite this, these reports contained no mention of fish and wildlife, with the exception of potential loss of habitat for game animals. The concern was for the welfare of the environment in general. But by 1981, both newspapers’ resource extraction stories always mentioned environmental protection efforts, such as the completion of studies aimed at assessing potential environmental impacts of the operations [Figure 16], and we see specific reported concern for fish and wildlife, including non-game species, their habitat, and overall well-being. The March 12, 1981 Missoulian article reports on concern that proposed mining activity might disturb elk, grizzly bears, and mountain goats [see Figure 17]. In the 1991 and 2001 samples, the practice of identifying potential risks to fish and wildlife was routine [see Figure 18]. Industry could no longer develop without paying very careful attention to possible threats to fish and wildlife.

Indication #3—Fish and wildlife have figured in the story of the evolution of Montana’s sometimes contentious identity

Whereas the 1961 newspaper samples seemed to depict natural resource development and fish and wildlife as two realms unproblematically co-existing—indeed if anything, both existing under the same umbrella of the utilitarian value of the human use of nature—with each passing decade (as noted in Indication #2 [above]), values related to fish and wildlife would often be associated with extreme opposition to resource development. In this way, along with its identity as a resource extractor, and a place where people valued fish and wildlife, Montana came to be identified as a region of conflict. These reported conflicts appear in the 1971 samples and become more numerous in 1981 and plateauing to a steady level in 1991. An early conflict is evident in a 1971 Missoulian letter to the editor that asks snowmobilers to consider staying out of pristine areas for the sake of the wildlife, not just to preserve game habitat, but wildlife habitat for nonconsumptive reasons [see Figure 19]. By 1981, in the samples for both newspapers, it seems that after more than a decade of gains for the liberal environmentalists who argue for the protection of fish and wildlife for their own sake, the conservatives who support the development of natural resources, such as mining, petroleum exploration, lumbering, and agriculture, are beginning to push back. By 1991, we clearly see a ratcheting up of competing discourses. We also see evidence that the conflicts may reflect the unique concerns of each region. For instance, in the 1991 Billings Gazette samples, a great deal of attention if focused on what evolving fish and wildlife preservation values will mean for one of the backbones of eastern Montana’s economy—agriculture. What does it mean that more and more Montana ranches are being purchased by out-of-staters wanting a piece of the good life? What will be the impact of the transition from fulltime, long term, ranching families to part-time, often short term, outsiders [see Figure 20]? In the 1991 Missoulian samples, less concern is focused on agriculture. With a great deal of land more suitable for tree growth in western Montana than farming and ranching, the predominant clash emerging from the Missoulians samples involves the conflict between those who want to preserve lumbering as a way of human life and those who see it as a threat to the future of Montana’s fish and wildlife. One article paraphrased a timber industry lobbyist who declared that “Montana timber workers are fighting for their children against out-of-staters who want to put Montana on a shelf and admire it…” [see Figure 21] In a Missoulian article published a week earlier, a Lolo National Forest supervisor said, “This is a very, very controversial time,” and was quoted later as saying that because timber companies had been overcutting, and there was increasing concern about lumbering in roadless areas, “The land, wildlife, and water, ‘need a rest’” [see Figure 22].

Indication #4—But through all this, the celebration of hunting, fishing, and recreating has remained, and even grown

Although the conflicting values would further sharpen and define the competing camps, one value set that did not change over the years was found in the bread-and-butter, mean-and-potatoes presentations of fish and wildlife in the pages of the Missoulian and BillingsGazette. From the backwoods philosophizing of Lloyd Casagranda in the Billings Gazette [see Figure 5] to the folksy advice of Ernie Tucker’s ‘Shots and Casts’ in the Missoulian [see Figure 6] back in 1961, columns [Figure 23] and illustrated features [Figure 24] devoted to the sportsperson have been regular features of both newspapers. All of this culminated in fullblown ‘Outdoors’ sections in both the Gazette and Missoulian, which first appeared in our sample in 1991. Across the board, the intent and product have been the same: provide a mix of commentary on the latest equipment and experiences available, confirm the need for natural resource management, call for balance between competing interests, and encouragement the outdoorsperson to notice the intricate wonders of nature, the authenticity, the chance to reflect.

Future Research

For the next phase of this ongoing study of the story of fish and wildlife in Montana’s newspapers, we will be further comparing sampled coverage in the Missoulian and Billings Gazette and augment the investigation with samples from a third newspaper located in Montana’s central region, the Great Falls Tribune. Additionally, we hope a detailed analysis will help us to better understand how Montana’s distinct regions have both similar and different values for fish and wildlife and the historical trajectory of that value maintenance/change.


Hodder, I. (1998). The interpretation of documents and material culture. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. (pp. 110-129). Thousand Oaks: CA: Sage.

This report was completed in 2004.