Blue Montana

Steve Doherty

More than 1,500 miles separates the hardened streets of Chicago's South Side from the rocky outcroppings along western Montana's Continental Divide. But the ideological gap between the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and a group of hunters, anglers, and politicians across Big Sky Country measures only the width of a drought-stricken creek.

The Montana Sportsmen for Obama Committee argues the junior senator from Illinois has a stronger grasp of the threats to America's natural resources and will enact policies to preserve them.

Simply put, "Senator Obama shares our values more than Senator McCain," committee member Shane Colton said.

When Colton isn't campaigning for the Illinois Democrat, he practices law in Billings, Mont., and serves as vice chairman of Montana's Wildlife, Fish and Parks Commission (MWFPC), a five-member body working with Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer to shape policy.

Still, considering the support John McCain has received from such hunting stalwarts as the National Rifle Association, why would Montana elk hunters endorse a Chicago lawyer and politician who might not ever have fired a gun or wet a line in his life?

"He (Barack Obama) grew up in an urban setting," said Dan Vermillion, another MWFPC commissioner, who with his two brothers runs a fishing and travel charter company out of Livingston, Mont. "But his views on public lands, wildlife habitat and the protection of wildlife species are totally in line with mine, and to me, that's more important than whether he hunts and fishes."

The Montana Sportsmen for Obama Committee was born after a series of informal discussions between Vermillion, Colton and other members of the MWFPC, as well as county commissioners, former backcountry park rangers and an assortment of hunters and anglers from across the state.

Steve Doherty, the MWFPC's current chairman and a former state senator, likened the committee to "the modern day equivalent of sitting around the campfire." An accomplished pheasant and antelope hunter, Doherty became the burgeoning group's leader, organizing early political efforts and working to recruit members.

"We looked around and just said, 'We've got to do something — we like this guy Obama, and he's not going to take our guns away,'" Doherty said. "Let's put something together, let's go to the Obama people and tell them, 'We like what you're doing and we want to be a part of this effort.'"

The members announced the group via an April, 2008 news conference and created a presence on Obama's official Web site.

Similar Sportsmen for Obama organizations have sprung up in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia and most recently New Hampshire.

Guns not the point

Obama twice visited Montana after the committee was formed. During one of those appearances, Colton had a chance to speak with the candidate.

The Montana hunter said he received all the assurance he needed from the former constitutional law professor that Montana sportsmen's guns were not in danger — a claim Obama continues to repeat on the campaign trail.

"I will not take your shotgun away; I will not take your rifle away," Obama told a group of sportsmen at a September campaign rally in Lebanon, Va. "I won't take your handguns away."

The Obama camp argues for "reasonable" and "commonsense" gun laws in cities. The Montana committee shares Obama's situation-specific view.

"I agree with a need for each state to be able to demonstrate what are reasonable regulations regarding the circumstances in that state," Doherty said. "And I think that's what the Supreme Court recently ruled."

Colton echoed that sentiment: "It's hard for me in Billings, Montana, to understand what's going on in bigger cities with urban violence."

In June the Supreme Court ruled that a citywide handgun ban in Washington, D.C., was unconstitutional. The day of the decision, Obama told USA Today, "Today's decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe."

But when Obama said people from small towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" at a fundraiser in San Francisco — comments he later called a "bonehead move" — the NRA seized the opportunity to ramp up its attack on the senator.

The NRA distributed a flyer designed to resemble Obama campaign literature, outlining reasons why gun owners should be wary of the Democratic choice for president. The pro-gun lobby also launched television spots featuring "average Joe" hunters criticizing the candidate's voting history and expressing fears about a future with Obama as president.

Upset with what it felt were misleading and flat-out dishonest advertising by the NRA and other groups, the Montana Sportsmen for Obama Committee sharpened it mission. Members became more vocal in their defense of the candidate, submitting editorials to newspapers and letters to magazine editors both inside and outside of hunting and fishing circles.

Regardless of the gun argument, the Montana committee insists the NRA keeps missing the point.

"Why does the NRA get so focused on the Second Amendment but really never seems to address what you're going to do with your gun once you have it?" Vermillion asked. "What if you have a gun and you can't go hunt? I'm glad to have a gun at my house, but if I can't go hunting and fishing, my life is greatly devalued."

Access is king

Gun control is a relative non-issue for the Montana Sportsmen for Obama Committee.

Its members are confident Obama won't come after sportsmen's guns and, according to Doherty, "even if he did, the Second Amendment would protect their rights." Instead, the chairman of the MWFPC urges politicians and voters to "look at the bigger picture."

Specifically, Doherty points to Obama's commitment to the North American Wildlife Conservation model, his belief in passing hunting and fishing heritage down to new generations and his efforts to urge landowners to keep their land open for hunting and fishing.

"Hunters and anglers are way more sophisticated. They're looking beyond the end of the gun barrel," Doherty said. "They're looking at everything."

Everything to the Montana committee begins with access.

Doherty says the NRA is fighting a battle it ostensibly has won — protecting ownership of hunting firearms — while ignoring live threats to sportsmen.

"Meanwhile, back in the field, [there are] the people in the camo and the fluorescent orange vests, the people who are enjoying the tradition and the people out there managing the resource," he said. "That's where I'm going to be."

One such issue in Montana: Because of high demand to harvest big game such as elk and mule deer, outfitters in mainly the eastern part of the state have purchased small strips of private land in order to strategically block off large chunks of public land.

According to Colton, the average Montana sportsman continues to see limited access to public lands and wildlife due to increasing privatization of governmental land and the expansion of commercialized hunting and mining.

"As a senator from Illinois, I don't know if he's dealt with those issues," Colton said. "But it's more what he's told our groups when he's been here."

From those conversations, Colton thinks Obama's platform will protect open public lands from being privatized and horded.

"We think [Obama's platform] is consistent with the more traditional sportsman in Montana than this stance of drill at all costs, or this idea of leaving it to private enterprise to handle matters of public land," Colton said.

Echoing Colton's sentiment, Vermillion said it's getting near impossible to hunt and fish "unless you're lucky enough to know a rancher or you own a ranch." He feels access to public land should be something universally available to people "whether they make a million dollars or they're on food stamps."

"Obama's made a stronger commitment to make sure any development that takes place on federal land is done in a way that will protect and maintain my ability and my children's ability and my friends' ability to go hunt on public land," Vermillion said.