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Reshaping of the Political Environment in Montana: Implications for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks


Montana, like other western states, possesses certain characteristics that make for a unique political environment. The low density of population in a large area of land; historical reliance on extractive industries; the existence of distinct regional economies; and the high level of outdoor recreation participation all lend a certain political culture to the state. These historical facts, coupled with recent high population growth rates in some counties, may be contributing to the evolution of a new breed of voter in the high growth counties of the Western and Central region. This new Montana voter may be a hybrid of two political ideologies-conservative on fiscal issues and progressive on environmental ones as measured by the vote on three initiatives.

The three regions of Montana seem to be different with respect to their political alignment. The western region is dominated by residents, which are relatively uncoupled from the traditional agricultural and extractive economy of the state. As a result, they do not recognize a trade-off between their desire for a clean environment and their employment opportunities. A similar feeling can be found in the Central region, although to a somewhat lesser degree. Things are different in the Eastern region. In part because of the economic dependency on the agricultural and extractive industries and in part because of the traditionally conservative political culture of the region, support for the pro- FWP position for the three initiatives discussed below is shown to be very low.

These findings may be particularly relevant to land management agencies as they enter a new era of management framed by so called "new west" values in the Western region and private property rights, fiscal restraint, and declining agricultural production in the eastern counties. In those counties that have undergone a significant economic shift the public lands agencies will find relatively higher levels of public support for policies that protect a clean environment, preserve clean water, and those that manage our native animals for sport rather than commodity production. Private landowners in the eastern counties view the environment as a tangible economic asset rather than a qualitative amenity and are firmly entrenched in the traditional agricultural values of property rights and production value of both private and public lands.


The western Rocky Mountain States appear to have been experiencing a conservative swing since the general election of 1952, particularly in terms of presidential preference. But even local elections seem to be increasingly contested and won by conservative politicians. This section will analyze political trends for the state and three regions in connection with results from three initiatives that are to some extent related to issues important to FWP and other public lands agencies. The focus is placed on the initiatives for several reasons. First, the influence of the media makes it difficult to separate statewide issues and personalities from national patterns and popular political figures. In other words, national politics will certainly influence statewide races; a popular or (unpopular) President carries political influence into Montana. Second, as the procedure is defined in the 1972 Constitution, Montana's initiative and referendum process is one of the most open and citizen-friendly in the country. As a result of the relative simplicity of the process and Montanan's desire to be involved in their government, since the 1980 general election to the present, Montana voters have been asked to weigh in on 76 ballot issues ranging from calls for a constitutional convention to changes in tax laws and government structure. Third, one's feelings toward wildlife, habitat, clean water or state parks are not, for the most part, a partisan issue-these are deeply held values among Montana residents. For that reason, we believe that monitoring the public votes on ballot issues is a more accurate representation of the values of the populace than party affiliation.

All the initiative and referendum outcomes over the 1980-2002 general election cycles were obtained from the office of Secretary of State in Helena and are public information. Three initiatives can be described as pro-environmental in nature and two, I-136 (outfitter licenses reform) in 1998 and I-143 (game farm reform) in 2000 can be said to represent proxies for public orientation toward fish and wildlife issues. The other, I-137-a proposed ban on the use of heap leach cyanide process for open pit gold and silver mining is a good proxy for how voters feel about clean water.

This cross sectional study is aimed at describing voter orientation on three initiatives over a short period of time. It is not the focus of this study to identify an emergent trend in political values or to develop a comprehensive model of voter behavior. Voter behavior is a complex area of study and many variables were not considered in this overview that could prove valuable to better illustrating the behavior of Montana's voters. Finally, this analysis is limited by the time frame of the data, having only three environmental initiatives and only two directly related to FWP issues, and by the fact that no statewide polling has been conducted to assess the public disposition to the many management issues that fall within the purview of FWP.

The table below summarizes the three voter initiatives used in this study:

Year Number Short Title Disposition Fish and Game Management
1998 I 136 Revise outfitter and hunting licenses 56.1%
1998 I 137 Prohibit cyanide process open pit gold and silver mining 52.3%
2000 I 143 Game farm reform 51.4%
  • I-136 sought to eliminate the requirement that nonresidents hire a Montana-licensed outfitter in order to purchase a guaranteed license to hunt birds, fish, and hunt deer and elk. The opponents of this reform presented it as a pro-agency and pro-business initiative. In this case a defeat of the initiative has a favorable orientation toward FWP.
  • I-137 proposed to eliminate the cyanide heap leach process for gold and silver. The initiative was presented as a clean water initiative and pro agriculture. Opponents claimed it was not an environmental proposal but a pro-jobs/pro-mining position. A favorable passage can be seen as a vote for clean water in the state.
  • I-143 was intended to prohibit new game farms, prohibit the transfer of existing game farm licenses and prohibited the shooting of game farm animals for a fee. The intent was to curb the growth of game farms in the state and to eliminate "canned hunts". Proponents sought to preserve "fair chase" hunting as well as prevent the outbreak of tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease. Again, in this case passage can be construed as favorable to fish and game issues.

Montana's Past and Present Economic Relationship to the Land

Long before Montana received territorial standing in 1864, Lewis and Clark proclaimed her a land of great abundance and beauty. Intrigued by the promises of these tales, pioneers made their way to Montana to answer the call of the land, the rivers and streams and the forests. Generation after generation of Montanans has made a living from the land-by farming and ranching, mining, or logging.

Extractive industries quickly established themselves as the basis of Montana's economy during the first 100 years of the state's existence. Montana's early economy grew from the small mining camps of Virginia City and Bannack to the industrial mining sites and the communities that supported them whose growth was spurred by the introduction of the railroad. With this expansion came the dominance of Montana's Copper Kings and large mining corporations who maintained great influence over the political and economic course of the state.

The early 20 th century saw a doubling of Montana population centered in the agricultural regions of eastern and northern Montana. Cows and wheat replaced silver and gold, but Montana and its people still depended on the land and what it produced. Until the 1920s, Montana expanded its economy to become one of the country's leading agricultural producers adding to its status a successful mining state.

Post-1920, Montana's economy entered a significant period of decline, particularly in terms of its agricultural sector. Between 1919 and 1922 more than half of Montana's farmer lost their land and half of the state's banks were closed. The depression era began in Montana sooner than in other areas of the country and, unfortunately, ended later. The 1950s and 1960s did bring much needed, although short-lived, economic relief to Montana. The strengthening markets in both agriculture and industry post-World War II was vital in bringing Montana out of the long-lived depression. However, Montana still would not experience the same prosperous economic conditions of other states and the state continues to try to recover from the decline that began almost 50 years ago.

While resource-based industries brought many economic boons to Montana, over-dependence on them ultimately created an economy riddled by slow, inconsistent growth, periods of high unemployment, the "flight" of Montana's young workers, and the shifting of populations out of eastern Montana. Today, Montana's lagging agricultural and extractive economies have given way to service-based industries. Montanans, finding it more difficult to make a living based on traditional extractive and agricultural industries, have again looked to the land. Today, the land offers tourist-based service opportunities that provide for Montana's economic needs. The eco-amenities, open spaces and lifestyle available in Montana provide the opportunity to bring businesses of the new economy. Montana again is supporting her people with the land, this time in an "interactive" rather than extractive manner, enticing even more in-migrants to Montana. In Montana, this trend follows a distinct west to east direction.

Recent Migration Trends

Just as increased international immigration can bring about social, cultural and political change, domestic immigration or out-migration can result in significant changes for a community. Migration can affect the demographic makeup of a region including sex, age, and religion-factors that are known to affect election outcomes and the political ideology of place. It may create a level of tension between "old-timers" and "new-comers" which can result in political instability and change.

Generally, areas experiencing increased population due to immigration are those prospering economically. In contrast, areas experiencing out-migration are usually areas experiencing economic decline. Traditionally, most individuals migrate in order to secure employment or advance their personal opportunities. However, migration can also be attributed to non-economic factors such as quality of living, preference for rural areas and availability of eco-amenities in a given area. Montana seems to experiencing three categories of immigrants: return migrants, retirement migrants, and new migrants. Return migrants are those individuals who initially migrated out of a state but subsequently returned to a state or county of origin. Reasons for returning include the improvement of economic conditions in a given area, desire to be near family and friends, or the ability to apply newly acquired skills to work force in the place of origin. Migrants categorized as "retirement migrants" come to an area to spend their retirement years. These migrants may not necessarily be return migrants, but some overlap does exist. Retirees make migration decisions based on nearness to family, climate, environment, or entertainment opportunities. Finally, "new migrants" are those individuals migrating to an area for the first time, usually citing economic advantages and personal opportunity as reasons for relocating.

Although detailed county-by-county data illustrating the exact breakdown of Montana's immigration population is not presented here, it is suggested in a Seattle Times, July 30, 1997, article, that as many as two-thirds of those immigrating to Montana from outside its borders are return migrants. In other words, of the approximate 48,000 gain, almost 32,000 are individuals who previously lived in Montana. While the majority of immigrants are returning Montanans, the other third of the incoming population is white, middle-classed and from other western states, specifically California. This group of immigrants influences their new communities by bringing a new Republican base with them, creating a "curious mixture of Old-West gun culture and high-tech individualism."

Communities experiencing an increased return migrant population find themselves faced with a myriad of both problems and opportunities. A concentration of return migrants, for example, can bring a newly skilled workforce to a community. However, this skilled workforce may compete against the existing, possibly economically downtrodden, population for jobs. In economically stricken areas, this competition could create a great deal of tension among neighbors. Depending on the length and/or success of the return migrant's time outside of the home state, they may return with new political ideology, economic theories, and financial resources. These fundamental changes in ideology and social status also may greatly affect the social cohesion of a community; it may also create an atmosphere that allows for new political ideas and thought.

The Contemporary Economic Setting

It is not surprising that some overlap exists between those counties experiencing total population gains and those making gains in net in-migration. An overlap also exists in the trend of western counties making significant gains while eastern counties experience losses. The pattern seems to further illustrate the migration of individuals from economically struggling eastern counties, which depend on extractive industries and agriculture to those western Montana "eco-amenity" counties close to national parks, forests, lakes and rivers and on the outskirts of larger urban areas (i.e. bedroom communities). Census data concerning economic factors seem to confirm a pattern of a lagging eastern economy and a growing western economy. With the exception of Yellowstone County, the counties experiencing the largest percentage gains are western counties. At the same time, counties experiencing the largest percentage losses are found in the eastern half of the state.

Montana Political Culture and Recent Trends

Montanans have long embraced their pioneering spirit, unique history and rugged individuality-c haracteristics that permeate the state's politics in many ways. Montanans are concerned with and involved in their government, and believe that Montana's government is truly "by and for the people."

Montana's 1972 Constitution articulates many aspects of the state's political foundations. For instance, the Constitution clearly illustrates the need for citizen involvement by allowing for uncomplicated initiative, referendum and Constitutional amendment processes. Montanans frequently use these tools to institute change or simply send messages to elected officials about preferences for the direction or role of government. The Constitution further asserts that Montanans have the right to protection from intrusion by government (the right to privacy) and maintains the right of the governed to be involved in decision-making (freedom of information and right to participate in government at all levels). The Constitution illustrates Montana's reliance on and respect for the land by securing the right of every Montanan to a "clean and healthful environment." Montana is also the only state that allows for review of local government by the citizenry.

The political environment of Montana is entrenched in populist theory. Section 1 of Montana's Constitution states:

"All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole."

As a result of this intrinsic populist value, Montanans, in the past, tended to choose politicians considered more "like me" than not. In terms of political alignment, historically, most Montanans leaned toward the independent middle, making decisions based on "the best candidate for the job" rather than one political party or the other.

During the formative years of Montana's political life, the Democratic Party dominated Montana politics. From 1918 to 1976, Democrats won 25 of 30 elections in the First (Western) District with an average margin of 58.7%. During the same time period in the Second (Eastern) District, Democrats won 13 of 32 races with an average margin of 59.6%. Further illustrative of this Democratic dominance is that during the 110 years of the state's existence, Democrats have controlled the Governor's seat 17 out 29 terms, or 58.6% of the time.

Although the Democratic Party dominated politics in the state's early history, recent history has seen a balance of power between the two main parties and the inclusion of multiple third party candidates. This transition of power begins to appear in the 1930s and is solidified in the general election of 1952. Since 1952 Democrats captured the Governor's seat only five times compared to the Republican's eight successful bids. In recent elections the balance has shifted to favor increasingly conservative Republicans. The election of 2002 however saw some of that balance replaced.

As Montana enters the 21 st Century, she faces a new political reality. An evolution has occurred from an historical, two-party system of clear and strong Democratic and Republic contingents to a convoluted political setting in which issues are easily shared from one party to another. More commonly, important issues seem to converge somewhere in the middle. With more voters identifying themselves as "independents" rather than Democrats or Republican and claiming to base decisions based on "personality" versus party affiliation, predicting election outcomes in Montana is no longer a simple matter of looking at the map. Traditionally, western communities supported Democratic candidates and Democratic platforms, while eastern communities embraced Republican candidates and Republican ideals. This regional political ideology is no longer the standard.

As a result of weakening party loyalty, a successful candidate's party affiliation alone is not a sufficient indicator of true political ideology. Too many mitigating factors can enter into the political equation to rely solely on this as a gauge of the conservative or liberal tendency of a voting population. Montana is politically a small state and individual actions of candidates, campaign strategies and financing, and community standing factors that may sway voters. In 1992 Montana passed a term limits bill and this may prove to be the most destabilizing factor of all as office holders are limited to two terms in the House and Senate.

Issues related to FW&P however are difficult to analyze by party or candidate and general election races may not be instructive. This may be particularly true with respect to wildlife management issues where traditional sport, habitat protection strategies, and agricultural income support blur the party lines and candidate positions.

Montana Swings to the Right

In terms of an emerging "conservative swing" in Montana, statewide elections since the mid-1980s indicate a slight to moderate advantage for Republican candidates. Specifically, Montanans are voting for Republican candidates at a higher percentage for Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate and House races. The trend gained momentum in the late 1990s and reached a peak in the 2000 general election, with Republican candidates winning elections by a higher overall percentage and capturing, or maintaining, traditionally Democratic strongholds. Most notably, with the consolidation of Montana's two congressional districts to one sole Congressional district in 1992 and the retirement of Pat Williams in 1996, Republicans successfully captured the seat in 1996 with the election of Rick Hill and have maintained control with the 2000 election of Dennis Rehberg. This shift is significant since the majority of Montana's population resides in the western half of the state, which historically supported Democratic candidates in the Western Congressional District.

In the high growth counties in the western part of the state, Republican candidates experienced an even greater level of success than at the statewide level. Analysis in 2000 by Shell-Beckert showed that for the Presidential, Gubernatorial, Senate and House races from 1980 to 2000 the high growth counties, on average, voted Republican at a much higher rate than the state as a whole.

Results of the Initiative Analysis

The three initiatives were analyzed across the three economic regions and at the state level:

CI 136-Outfitter Reform

At the state level the initiative failed with a 43.9% in favor and 56.1% opposed. All three regions failed to pass the initiative. Again, opposition of this initiative in 1998 can be seen as a favorable outcome for FWP as they continue to manage big game in Montana for sportsmen rather than landowners.

Region   Pass Fail
1 Count 5 16
Outcome in Percent 23.8% 76.2%
2 Count 6 8
Outcome in Percent 42.9% 57.1%
3 Count 7 14
Outcome in Percent 33.3% 66.7%
Total Count 25 32
Outcome in Percent 43.9% 56.1%

CI-137-Prohibition on cyanide process

This initiative narrowly passed with a 52.3% to 47.7% margin statewide. In region one it passed narrowly but was overwhelmingly in region two. Region three passed the initiative by an easy margin. This initiative in effect is a referendum on clean water in the state and reflected the importance Montanans place on that important agricultural and recreational resource.

Region Pass Fail
1 Count 11 10
Outcome in Percent 52.4% 47.6%
2 Count 9 5
Outcome in Percent 64.3% 35.7%
3 Count 10 11
Outcome in Percent 47.6% 52.4%
Total Count 31 26
Outcome in Percent 52.3% 47.7%

CI-143-Game farm reform

At the state level this initiative narrowly passed (51.4% to 48.6%) and was actively opposed by the agricultural community. Region one passed the proposal by a wide margin or greater than 3 to 1 while the other two regions opposed the initiative. This outcome, more than the other two votes we examined highlights the regional economic and social conditions across the state of Montana. Agricultural interests perceived this vote as not only an economic issue but a property rights' one as well. In region one where there is more growth, less traditional agriculture and less private land, the support for wild elk overshadowed private economic concerns.

Region Pass Fail
1 Count 16 5
Outcome in Percent 76.2% 23.8%
2 Count 2 12
Outcome in Percent 14.3% 85.7%
3 Count 1 20
Outcome in Percent 4.8% 95.2%
Total Count 20 37
Outcome in Percent 51.4% 48.6%

What does it MEAN?

According to a statewide poll conducted by the League of Women Voters and the Montana Conservation Voters in January 2000, Montana voters ranked environmental issues, education, health care and taxes as top priorities. When asked to rank these issues on a scale of one to ten (ten being high, zero low), those responding rated education 7.1, health care 7.0, clean air and water 6.9, and taxes 6.8.Interestingly, poll respondents indicated that environmental issues rated at their "primary concern in casting votes" for elected offices.

This poll illustrates a trend that Montana (as well as most other Western states) is experiencing concerning environmental politics. Montana has always espoused a hard line concerning environmental issues. Statutorily, Montana fervently protects its natural resources, including a unique environmental protection clause in the state constitution that ensures the right to a clean environment. The state has historically had stringent clean air and water standards as well as strict permitting requirements for extractive industries.

While the environment has always been an important issue for Montana, environmentally conscious voters and those flocking to Montana because of the availability of eco-amenities are demanding a political mainstream that is even stronger on environmental issues. Ironically, this environmental push has come at a time when the dominance of the Democratic Party is in decline; as the union-based extractive industries vanish from the landscape of Montana's economy, so does the traditional political base of the Democratic Party.

The contemporary voter in Montana is a "hybrid" consisting of two minds. On one hand they are fiscally and politically conservative and on the other, environmentally conscious. This relationship is meaningful. Voters, as a whole, are more likely to support efforts to protect and enhance the environment but they are not a willing to pay for the level of government that will do so.

Public lands agencies enjoy considerable support in the two western regions but are seen as a threat to property rights by those in the eastern counties-mainly because their policies are seen as a threat to the agricultural economy of the region. Across the state one can imagine that user fees for public land access, licenses for special uses, and permits for popular activities might find support. These market -based approaches "fit" the emergent political culture in the state and pass the burden of government to the end user. One can wonder if there are sufficient economies of scale to manage public land assets using the fee-based approach however.

The results of this study suggest that a notable political shift is emergent in Montana, and more specifically, in counties experiencing high rates of in-migration. This influence promises to alter the setting of Montana's politics in significant ways both now and in the near future, affecting both major parties and the political scene in which they thrive. As Montana continues to experience growth and population shifts, migrants will continue to play a role in the emergence of a new political front. They will challenge those in the political arena to alter their traditional view of the Montana voter and what motivates them. The contemporary Montana voter cares deeply about the quality of the environment in which he lives and willingly casts a vote that reflects that care.

This report was completed in 2004.