Category Archives: Wildlife

Save Lake Mead, Save America


Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.


Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.


Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the top and 45 feet thick at the bottom, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core of is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.


Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.


Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.


As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.


The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.


There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.


Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.


Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.


Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the balls to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world. logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

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Billionaire Surcharge Tax


Out-of-state landowners are purchasing immense tracts of land in Montana for private game preserves… and locking Montanans out.

Funding to Restore Public Access

Three moose.

Closing private lands, as well as access to public lands, goes against long-standing Montana traditions.

Montana’s wildlife is for sale. While it is theoretically illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, rich out-of-staters are circumventing the law by purchasing immense tracts of land and locking Montanans out. Traditional Montana landowners historically allowed public hiking, fishing, and hunting on private lands. Now we are overrun by multimillionaires and billionaires who acquire big ranches and post No Trespassing signs to keep Montanans out. They often consolidate numerous neighboring family farms into bigger and bigger megaranches, which they enjoy as private wildlife safaris for their own hunting pleasure. This unneighborly trend has effectively shut down much of Montana to outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing.

Any Montanan who loves the outdoors has felt the impact of these megarich newcomers, yet the rich contribute shockingly little tax revenue to compensate for their oversized impact on Montana. To address core issues and rebalance public access, I propose a modest “Billionaire Surcharge Tax” for property owners with 20,000+ acres of land in Montana. Proceeds from the tax will be directed towards public access programs such as Block Management to reward landowners who continue to allow public access.

The Problem

Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Ferris Wilks made their fortune in the fracking business, then cashed out and brought their money to Montana. They bought the 62,000-acre N-Bar Ranch southeast of Lewiston in 2011 then started gobbling up neighboring ranches to expand their estate to 358,837 acres (560 square miles) by 2015. Like other billionaires and multimillionaires who come to Montana, the Wilks brothers posted No Trespassing signs and closed the ranches to traditional public access, plus they terminated access to public parcels encompassed within their mega-estate.


Texas billionaires Dan and Ferris Wilks bought multiple ranches in central Montana since 2011, totaling 358,837 acres (560 square miles), including prime elk habitat.

The Wilks’ empire encompasses the elk-rich Durfee Hills, public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Previous owners allowed public access across private land to access the Durfee Hills, but the Wilks brothers ended the public goodwill, making it impossible to access the Durfee Hills without an airplane. Then they tried to push a land swap to give the BLM more accessible land in exchange for title to the Durfee Hills. Local hunters successfully shot down the proposal, because the land being offered wasn’t prime wildlife habitat like the Durfee Hills. Hunters concluded that it was better to access the Durfee Hills by airplane than not at all. When the deal failed, the Wilks brothers cut a swath around the Durfee Hills and erected a fence posted with “No Trespassing” signs. They also closed off public access to an unrelated parcel on Bullwhacker Road, trying to force the public to buckle to their land swap proposal.

Dan and Ferris Wilks are more visible than other billionaires in the state because of the size and speed of their acquisitions and their aggressive approach towards the public. In less than five years they bought enough ranches to become the biggest private landowners in the state, not counting corporate timberlands. Controversies landed them in the newspapers many times, yet the core issues began years before, when the first rich newcomers began purchasing large tracts of land for private wildlife safaris.

Montanans historically enjoyed a long-standing right to roam the open countryside across public and private lands. Known in Sweden as allemansrätten, “the everyman’s right,” the right to roam has been legally recognized and expanded across many European countries, as detailed in my article Posted: Please Trespass. Montana citizens owned the right to roam until the 1980s, when newcomers began buying large tracts of land and locking the public out. Montanans lost access to private lands where they had previously hiked, camped, fished, and hunted.


Some of these mega ranches are so immense that game animals seldom leave the property, effectively creating private game preserves.

Many of these ranches are such immense tracts of land that game animals seldom leave these private estates. These are defacto private game preserves where landowners enjoy private hunts, or sell hunting rights to other megarich individuals. A guided elk hunt on these mega ranches sells for up to $15,000. The rich own the land and the wildlife, banning common folk from hunting or even walking there. Feudalism was long ago rejected as reprehensible in Europe, yet we have allowed feudalism, or rather neofeudalism, to take our land and erode our rights here in modern day Montana, as detailed in my article Overlords of Montana.

Collectively, wealthy interlopers are buying up more and more of Montana and eroding our rights, yet contributing shockingly little in taxes. The average property tax on rural, agricultural land in Montana is about 65¢ per acre. The very rich claim residency out of state, so they do not pay Montana income taxes. They have an oversized impact on the Montana way of life, yet contribute very few tax dollars to offset those impacts.

A Solution


Funds from the tax could help support Block Management for hunter access or applied towards the purchase of land or easements to access land-locked public lands.

One way to help restore balance in Montana is to apply a surcharge property tax on megaranches, directing proceeds towards public access enhancement programs. For example, a surcharge tax on parcels greater than 20,000 acres would apply to only 128 landowners in Montana. Tax proceeds would be directed towards programs such as Block Management, a cooperative private-public partnership between landowners and Fish, Wildlife, and Parks that pays landowners to provide free hunting access to private land, and sometimes to adjacent public lands. Tax funds could also be used to purchase access routes to public parcels that are currently locked up within private lands. A modest $1 per acre surcharge tax on parcels of 20,000 acres or more could potentially raise several million dollars per year to help fund public access.


Landowners would be exempt if they claim residency in Montana and pay state income taxes.

To avoid double taxation, landowners who claim residency in Montana and pay income taxes in Montana would be exempt from the surcharge. In addition, any out-of-state landowner not wishing to pay the tax could choose an exemption by allowing continued traditional public access to their lands. Those who wish to block public access could do so and pay the surcharge tax. Either way, the surcharge tax would help restore balance in Montana, even if all megaranches chose the exemption and paid no taxes.

Dan and Ferris Wilks would be among the most impacted by the tax, contributing $358,837 per year towards public access programs in the state if they didn’t choose the exemption. Numbers on that scale sound unfathomably large to most of us, but not necessarily to the megarich.

Consider, Hamilton “Tony” James owns a 38,000-acre ranch near Twin Bridges, Montana, where he pushed through a land swap to take over 80 acres of public land on the Jefferson River known as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail. James has a net worth of approximately $1.95 Billion, and an annual income of about $78 million from stocks and salary as the chief operating officer of Blackstone, a global asset management company. Dividing that down to a forty-hour work week, a $38,000 surcharge tax on Tony James Montana ranch is equal to approximately what Tony James earns in one hour.


Any landowner who honors the Montana tradition of open access should naturally be exempt from the surcharge tax. The exemption is especially important given that not all megaproperties are owned by the megarich. The biggest private landowners in the state include corporations such as Weyerhaeuser (formerly Plum Creek), nonprofits like the Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Reserve, and a few historic ranches that have been handed down through generations of Montanans.

Weyerhaeuser is a forestry and logging corporation from Washington and Oregon that recently merged with Plum Creek from Montana, adding 765,925 acres of land to Weyerhaeuser’s operations. Weyerhaeuser has closed many of its western holdings to private use, except by lease, and there has been concern that the company might do the same in Montana. Fortunately, that has not happened yet, although Weyerhaeuser could change their policy at any time if they choose to. Implementing a $1 per acre surcharge tax would give Weyerhaeuser additional incentive to leave corporate lands open to public use and claim the exemption.


Any individual landowner, corporation, or nonprofit that allows traditional access would be exempt from the surcharge tax, including The Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Foundation.

The Nature Conservancy also owns extensive holdings in Montana, often acquiring properties then spinning them off to public entities. For example, prior to Plum Creek’s merger with Weyerhaeuser, The Nature Conservancy purchased 117,000 acres of corporate forest lands that were intermingled with public lands in the Blackfoot River watershed. These lands remain open to hiking and hunting, so The Nature Conservancy would be exempt from the surcharge tax. Ditto for the American Prairie Foundation, which has raised funds and purchased 84,141 acres of land (plus leased lands) for a public wildlife preserve in central Montana.

Also exempt would be historic Montana ranches where traditional hunting access is still honored, such as the Gordon Cattle Company, with 38,459 acres in north-central Montana Now under conservation easement, the easement includes hunting rights, guaranteeing access for future generations.

Of the 128 landowners with properties of 20,000 acres or more, many would choose to take the exemption, ensuring continued public access on large tracts of private lands. Therefore, the surcharge tax would likely apply only to megarich landowners who purchase properties for private game preserves. These landowners can afford to pay the tax, and likely would choose to pay the tax to continue blocking access to their private reserves.


Seventy percent of the deer harvest in Montana takes place on private lands.

Maintaining public access to private lands in Montana is essential for hunters because one-third of the elk harvest comes off private property, along with 70 percent of deer harvest and 80 percent of the antelope harvest.


Landowners sometimes charge up to $15,000 to hunt elk on their private game preserves.

The $1 per acre surcharge tax is not a significant burden to landowners who choose to pay it. For example, Ted Turner owns 148,870 acres spread across four different ranches in southwest Montana. An estimated 2,300 to 3,300 elk reside on Turner’s land, and wealthy hunters pay up to $15,000 for the privilege of hunting them. Therefore, ten of Turner’s elk would pay the entire annual surcharge of $148,870. These funds could significantly improve the public access situation in Montana by rewarding landowners who participate in Block Management to keep private lands open to traditional public access. Equally important, the funds could go towards acquiring access routes to public lands that are currently landlocked within or behind private parcels.

Fine-Tuning the Details


The surcharge tax could help rebalance public access issues in Montana, even if all affected landowners chose the exemption instead of paying the tax.

The billionaire surcharge tax could help rebalance public access issues in Montana, and it is important to bring this proposal to the 2017 legislature for consideration. However, the tax proposal outlined here is not a perfect solution, and it will require some fine-tuning for implementation.

One issue is that name inconsistencies can complicate identifying large property owners in the state. For example, the Montana Department of Revenue identified 128 landowners with properties of larger than 20,000 acres, yet many names on the list are duplicates.

For example, Franklin Otis Booth, Jr. invested $1 million with Warren Buffett in 1963, which grew in value to $2 billion by the time Booth died in 2008. The Booth family ranch encompasses approximately 125,000 acres sprawled across both sides of the Montana-Wyoming border. In Montana, the Department of Revenue lists “Booth Land and Livestock” with 29,009 acres and separately lists “Booth Land and Livestock Company” with 34,132 acres, for a total of 63,141 acres.

The problem with these near duplicate names is that other landowners may own megaranches that are subject to the tax, but wouldn’t show up in the initial search due to name discrepancies. A landowner with two 19,000-acre ranches under different names would not have been identified in this basic search, and some manual sleuthing may be required.

Likewise, landowners could potentially dodge the tax by purposely registering different parcels under different names, bringing visible ownership under the 20,000-acre threshold outlined in this proposal. Professional bean counters will need to examine the variables and determine the best means to close potential loopholes. Nevertheless, the surcharge property tax outlined here is a solid proposal to begin a statewide discussion on the issue and how to balance public access needs in our home state. It is my hope that state legislators will introduce some form of the surcharge tax into the upcoming 2017 legislature. logo.            Thomas J. Elpel lives in Pony, Montana. He is the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. He is the founder/director of Green University® LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS).

Related Articles

The State Lands Shuffle: Facilitating a more holistic public dialogue
Overlords of Montana: A land and people conquered by money
Posted: Please Trespass: The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam
Freedom to Roam

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D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self


Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.


It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.


Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.


How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?


We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.


What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.


As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?


In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.


Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.


We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.


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Overlords of Montana

Black Angus cows.

“To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who buy up the land for private fiefdoms and lock out ordinary Montanans.”

“The top one-tenth of 1% owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%. The economic game is rigged, and this level of inequality is unsustainable. We need an economy that works for all, not just the powerful.”

—Bernie Sanders

A land and people conquered by money

Driving the backroads of Montana, opulence is not a word that comes to mind to describe pastoral scenes of hay fields, barbwire fences, and herds of black Angus cattle grazing in grassy pastures. To the naked eye, this is pure Montana, a traditional rural landscape of family farms, except that it isn’t. Montana is being overrun by the superrich, multimillionaires and billionaires who buy up the land for private fiefdoms, lock out ordinary Montanans, and reduce local citizens to a peasant class working in servitude for these overlords. Europeans long ago rejected feudalism as reprehensible, yet we have allowed this new feudalism—neofeudalism—to arise and rule over our land and people.

Meet the Neighbors

Montana is part-time home to countless multimillionaires, yet it is the billionaires that make the greatest waves—gobbling up large ranches and family farms to build private estates for themselves and their hunting and fishing buddies.

For the most part, these are not entirely bad people. For example, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, owns four ranches in Montana, totaling 153,000 acres. Highly conservation oriented, Turner has protected much of his land with conservation easements to prevent future development. Turner has raised the largest private herd of buffalo in the world and invested countless millions in environmental and conservation efforts. However, he also went against longstanding Montana traditions by posting “No Trespassing” signs to keep the common folk of Montana off his estates. Turner arguably set the precedent and created the model for other billionaires to follow: Come to Montana, buy a private kingdom, then chase the peasant class off the land.

Downstream from Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch, James Cox Kennedy owns a comparatively small 3,200-acre ranch, including eight miles of the Ruby River. Kennedy once served as chairman of the Colorado Division of Wildlife and on the board of Ducks Unlimited. He has donated heavily to conservation projects, mostly benefiting waterfowl and wetlands. But Kennedy has also waged a long-running legal battle against Montana’s Stream Access Law that allows the public to float and fish on state rivers, including the Ruby River that runs through his otherwise private estate. If it were up to Kennedy, he would own the river, and nobody else could use it. He has even run electric fences across the river to zap floaters.

A short distance downstream from Kennedy, the Ruby River merges into the Beaverhead River and shortly thereafter into the Jefferson River, where New York billionaire Hamilton “Tony” James bought up a 38,000-acre estate for his personal recreational fiefdom. Like Turner and Kennedy, Tony James is a conservationist, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and several similar organizations, and an advisory board member of the Montana Land Reliance, an organization working to protect land with conservation easements. Like his fellow billionaires, James chose to block traditional public access to private lands, and like Kennedy, James isn’t a big fan of public access even where the public has a legal right.

Beaver Chew Campsite

Billionaire Tony James is attempting to take control of “Beaver Chew,” an 80-acre public campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

James somehow felt it necessary to push the public off the only public land remaining along the upper Jefferson River. Through his ranch company, Swift River Investments, James cut a deal with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to give him 80 acres of state land that served as Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail segment of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. James traded a slightly larger parcel on the nearby Big Hole River, which might have been a reasonable deal if it didn’t eliminate essential public land on the Jefferson.

Losing Beaver Chew was a severe blow to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and a dream shared by many to provide designated campsites along the Lewis and Clark route from here to St. Louis.

Bull Elk.

The Wilks brothers want to take control of prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management.

Also relatively new to Montana, Dan and Ferris Wilks made their billions in the fracking industry and quickly consolidated numerous ranches and family farms into a giant, 360,000-acre private estate, more than twice the size of Turner’s holdings in Montana, and half the size of the state of Rhode Island. Like other billionaires, the Wilks brothers closed the land to traditional access and have tried to expand their grasp to public lands. The Wilks sought to obtain prime elk habitat in the Durfee Hills through a land swap with the Bureau of Land Management, which was successfully shot down by area hunters. The Wilks’s responded to the defeat by erecting a fence encircling the Durfee Hills and posting No Trespassing signs.

Forrest Mars, Jr., a billionaire of Mars, Inc. that makes M&Ms, Mars, Milky Way, and other candies, bought out local ranches, assembling an 82,000-acre estate called the Diamond Cross ranch that encompasses much of the upper Tongue River near Birney, Montana. Mr. Mars also closed the properties to public access.

Initially, Mars seemed like a great ally to local environmentalists because he joined the fight against he proposed Tongue River Railroad, which would have hauled coal from the proposed Otter Creek Coal Mine. But Forrest Mars Jr. ultimately solved his problem the way billionaires do: He bought a share of the Tongue River Railroad and redesigned the railroad so it wouldn’t cross his land! Fortunately, the coal company eventually filed bankruptcy, and plans for the Tongue River Railroad died with the declining coal market.

Even the notorious Koch brothers have a ranch in Montana. Charles and David Koch, each with a net worth of $45 billion, own the 96,070-acre Beaverhead Ranch southeast of Dillon. They are best known for meddling in politics nationwide with a right-wing Tea Party agenda, including trying to influence elections to Montana’s supreme court.

Rounding out the list of Montana’s most infamous billionaires, Tim Blixseth, a real estate developer, took a bulldozer to the heart of the Madison Range to build the Yellowstone Club, a recreational gated community for billionaires and billionaire wannabes. If you want to have a vacation home next to Bill Gates, it is the place to be, but the gated community bisects habitat where wildlife would otherwise be free to migrate the full length of the Madison Range. Fortunately, Blixseth ultimately went bankrupt and spent fifteen months in jail for contempt of court because he failed to account for millions of dollars he owes to creditors.

It is particularly fitting that Blixseth should lose his freedom and land in jail, because the essential crime committed by him and his fellow billionaires is a fundamental loss of freedom for all Montanans.

“I think what the American people are saying is enough is enough. This country, this great country, belongs to all of us. It cannot continue to be controlled by a handful of billionaires who apparently want it all.”

—Bernie Sanders

Lost Freedoms

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomena in Montana.

Before the millionaires and billionaires came, Montana belonged to everyone. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, and landowners were typically pleased to see people engaged in healthy recreation on their farmlands. Unfortunately, as wealthy newcomers moved into the state, they bought land and posted boundaries with “No Trespassing” signs effectively keeping local people out. Miles out in the country, far from the nearest farmhouse, these signs appeared, threatening prosecution against anyone who should be brazen enough to take a walk on the overlords’ lands.

My first encounter with neofeudalism consisted of a gate plastered with about a dozen No Trespassing and Keep Out signs. It was April 1988, and my girlfriend and I were several days into a 500-mile walk across Montana. We started at my grandmother’s house in Pony and walked cross-country to Three Forks where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers come together to form the Missouri River. We followed railroad tracks downstream along the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek, planning to retrace the old railroad bed upstream east towards the Montana prairie. The railroad was clearly marked on our maps, but the railroad company went bankrupt in the 1970s and their easement was abandoned, allowing the land to revert to private ownership. That wasn’t a problem, but the No Trespassing signs were. After assessing our situation this far along, we concluded that we had no other alternative. April is still somewhat wintery in Montana, and Sixteen Mile was the only reasonable path to cut through the mountains to the prairies beyond, so over the gate we went.


SRI River Holdings, a.k.a. Tony James, placed a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign on the upstream end of state land at Beaver Chew, scaring away floaters who come hoping to camp on the public land.

At first the fiefdoms were few and far between, annoying, but not totally threatening. After all, Montana is a big place, far bigger than the boundaries of a few isolated fiefdoms. However, the superrich expanded their holdings, gobbling up family farms into ever-larger holdings, and new overlords joined them, buying more and more land. As aspiring Montana writer John Dracon pointed out, Europeans found the feudal system reprehensible, so it is ironic that feudalism is making a comeback in modern times. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. Disconnected from nature, people lose respect for the land, making them more likely to leave a trail of litter, graffiti, and vandalism. It isn’t the Montana way.

As I later discovered, the gate plastered with No Trespassing signs was the boundary to Turner’s Bar None Ranch. He owns three massive ranches within fifty miles of Pony, while Kennedy, James, and other megarich landowners have been steadily gobbling up the remaining private lands in between.

Sixteen Mile Creek was one of the most amazing places we encountered in our walk across Montana. The creek ran high and muddy, and it would have been difficult to ascend the narrow, winding canyon, except that the old abandoned railroad bed included wooden trestles over the water and multiple tunnels boring through the solid rock canyon walls. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer in a single day.

Although it is illegal to privatize wildlife in Montana, some of these enormous ranches encompass enough land to effectively privatize the wildlife within. For the low, low price of $14,000 – $15,000, private parties can hunt elk on Turner’s ranches. In our journey, we did cross paths with Turner’s land manager, but much to his credit, he simply waved us onward.

Bison grazing.

Ted Turner raises bison and supports wildlife and conservation, but also helped start neofeudalism in Montana.

I’ve never been anti-Turner. After all, he has placed conservation easements on much of his land, protecting it in perpetuity from being subdivided and developed. That is good news for preserving wide-open vistas behind our unofficial slogan, “Big Sky Country.” Turner also raises bison, arguably helping to bolster the cause of an animal so iconic to our country that Congress named it our national mammal. In addition, Turner donates money to numerous causes, and he supports local community programs with small grants. A community grant from Turner provides modest support ($1,800/year) for my own work teaching wilderness survival and nature awareness skills to school kids.

Turner’s ranches were always far enough away that I wasn’t directly confronted with the loss of access myself. It wasn’t until other millionaires and billionaires started claiming the land in between that I really began to notice the squeeze.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those behaviors are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners. Without freedom to roam, Montanans are reduced to serfdom to the overlords.

“There has been class warfare for the last thirty years. It’s a handful of billionaires taking on the entire middle-class and working-class of this country. And the result is you now have in America the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth and the worst inequality in America since 1928. How could anybody defend the top 400 richest people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, 150 million people?”

—Bernie Sanders


The saddest part about the rise of neofeudalism in Montana is that people who live here are reduced to a peasant class working in servitude to these out-of-state overlords. In the past, Montanans had the right to go anywhere, but now people are only allowed onto the overlords’ estates as servants to vacuum carpets and mow lawns.

Countless Montanans have prostituted themselves to the wealthy for a paycheck. Some are employed bulldozing roads deep into pristine landscapes, building mansions that are maintained and heated all year long, yet seldom occupied by the overlords. Others are employed building fences where none existed before, paid to install the No Trespassing signs that will keep themselves out as soon as the job is done. It seems like a good deal, getting paid by the filthy rich to mow a lawn or plow a driveway, but the price is that we are no longer a free people. We are increasingly indentured to overlords who use the people of Montana and then threaten to turn the police upon us if we violate their airspace by walking through woods that they themselves will likely never visit.

The serfdom that Montanans are subjected to isn’t limited to merely doing chores for the billionaires. One problem in dealing with the megarich is that they are willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. For example, a land swap proposal, such as Tony James’ bid to take control of public lands along the Jefferson River, commands time and energy of dozens of people, including common citizens who must clear their own schedules to deal with the issues.

Land trades are the billionaire’s game of Monopoly. Rather than get their own hands dirty, a landowner typically hires minions to do the dirty work to push a land swap proposal through the public scoping process, in this case enlisting the real estate services of American Lands, based in Missoula, Montana. Like anyone indentured to the megarich, the people at American Lands perceive servitude as opportunity. They claim to vet their clients carefully, working only for billionaires who are committed to conservation. They may purport to favor a collaborative process to seek out win-win solutions, but in order to serve the overlords, they are also willing to pit Montanans against Montanans, and if necessary, steamroll anyone who gets in the way.

A billionaire can potentially push a land swap deal with only one or two hired guns to move it forward, because public officials do much of the actual work, and taxpayers foot the bill. Public employees effectively work for the landowner, calculating land values, holding public hearings, and soliciting public comments. If a trade goes through, then the state or federal government may gain a few acres of land, ‘of equal or greater value,’ but there is no accounting for the cost of employee time to administer the land swap.

Above all, it is the common people, the peasant class, that are functionally reduced to servitude to the billionaire’s agenda in these land swap proposals, sometimes in favor, often opposed, and sometimes compelled to face off against each other. In order to protect their public lands, ordinary people must set their lives aside to attend meetings, get educated on the issues, and make informed public comments. Mounting a successful campaign can consume months of time and considerable expense for such things as babysitters, fuel, luncheon meals, and printing costs. Win or lose, nobody gets compensated for their time and expense in dealing with these issues. It is the billionaire’s game of real estate. They decide when they want to play, and in doing so, they dictate the agenda for affected citizens for months or years.

The irony is that billionaires play from afar, willing to consume everyone’s time but their own. That was evident at a public hearing on Mr. James’ land swap proposal. The meeting consumed the time of our state’s highest public officials, including the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and other state employees. Also attending were those of us who set aside our day to drive to the Capitol on icy roads to testify. In effect, every person in the room was there in servitude to the neofeudal overlord who didn’t bother to show up himself.

“This is what oligarchy looks like: Today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The top one-hundredth of 1 percent makes more than 40 percent of all campaign contributions. The billionaire class owns the political system and reaps the benefits from it.”

—Bernie Sanders

Absolute Power

The problem in dealing with people with too much money is that they are accustomed to getting anything they want. On the surface the overlords may seem like genuinely nice people, benefactors who donate funds to support local communities and environmental causes. But money comes with a price, and the overlords do not hesitate to use it.


Author Don Thomas lost his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine for writing an article about James Kennedy that was published in Outside Bozeman magazine.

James Kennedy, for example, is a big time donor to Ducks Unlimited, greatly benefiting waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. Yet, he has also funded fifteen years of litigation against the state of Montana to limit public access to Ruby River where it crosses his estate. Kennedy is a media mogul, part of the Cox family that controls the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) plus numerous other daily newspapers, television stations, and dozens of radio stations. Kennedy has been described as “the most hated person in Montana,” and his crusade against stream access rights is constant fodder in Montana newspapers. Yet his media audience in Georgia has never heard about Kennedy’s doppelganger life in Montana, and the AJC has notably omitted major news stories on similar issues in their home state of Georgia. Sadly, when Montana author Don Thomas chronicled the long-running legal saga in Outside Bozeman magazine, Thomas was summarily fired from his job at Ducks Unlimited magazine. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, but that right doesn’t apparently include freedom to criticize the overlords.

In a similar vein, Tony James is Vice Chairman of Trout Unlimited’s Coldwater Conservation Fund, and not surprisingly, local Trout Unlimited chapters support his land swap proposal to take away Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Map of Beaver Chew campsite on the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Then there is the problem of money in politics. Tony James has deep connections to the Democratic Party, and he has hosted fundraisers in his home for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. James has aspirations of being chosen as Secretary of the Treasury. He also has deep ties to Montana Democrats, including Governor Bullock.

Bullock is one of five members of the Montana Land Board, the five highest elected officials in the state that ultimately decide “yes” or “no” on land exchange proposals. It is unclear whether or not the land swap proposal can get a fair trial with an influential billionaire pulling the strings.

Most alarming, James Kennedy, Charles Schwab, and the Koch brothers have all contributed big dollars to political campaigns to reshape the Montana Supreme Court in their favor. Kennedy donated $100,000 and Schwab $3o0,000 in so-called dark money towards a successful campaign to unseat justice Ed Sheehy. They bought a seat on Montana’s highest court with Laurie McKinnon, who has since sided with the billionaires on public access issues.

Sir John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Montana is a land and people conquered by money. If we want to be a free people again, we must begin by making a united stand against the overlords. As Bernie Sanders proclaimed during his 2016 campaign for President, “The greed of the billionaire class has got to end and we are going to end it for them.”  

Who’s with me?

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.

An abridged version of this article was published in the Fall 2016 edition of Outside Bozeman magazine (pages 84-87).

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Roadkill: It’s What’s for Dinner

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do.

My grandmother mentored me in breaking the law. It wasn’t legal to pick up road-killed game along the highway, but she taught me that it was the right thing to do. The key was to do it quickly, while nobody was coming. Roadkill deer were loaded into the back of her truck and brought home for gutting, skinning, and butchering. Good meat went into the freezer. Any questionable meat was a treat for the dogs. Fortunately, the 2013 Montana legislature legalized the use of roadkill game (limited to deer, antelope, elk, and moose). Although my grandmother passed away years ago, I know that she would have appreciated the new law.
The illegality of salvaging roadkill game always seemed nonsensical to me. After all, Montana has a law that forbids the wanton waste of meat if a hunter kills a deer, yet there were thousands of deer going to waste along our highways every year. Moreover, according to the Foodbank Network, thirty percent of the population in Montana is at risk of food insecurity, especially the poor, the elderly, and children. According to their website, “Food insecurity is characterized by not having the financial means to buy food or grow food, the need for emergency food assistance, and adults skipping meals. Food insecurity exists when the availability of nutritionally adequate food or the ability to access it on a consistent basis is uncertain or limited.”

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

Montana’s new roadkill law applies to deer, moose, elk, and antelope.

I asked around, but no law enforcement officer could offer a compelling reason why it wasn’t legal to pick up roadkill game, and they always seemed to be drawing straws, making up answers about issues such as safety, liability, or the risk of encouraging poaching. But I finally figured out the answer myself: It wasn’t so much illegal as merely unlegal. Montana had no law against picking up roadkill game, yet no law allowing it either. According to Montana’s fish and wildlife laws, game animals can only be taken by approved methods, and anything not specified in the rulebooks isn’t allowed. Thus, picking up roadkill game was illegal by omission. For similar reasons, it isn’t legal to hunt upland game birds, such as grouse, with sticks or rocks. By the letter of the law, one is required to cheat nature and hunt with a gun or a bow.
I once dreamed of getting into state politics, and if I did, then I would have introduced legislation legalizing the use of roadkill game. But Steve Lavin (R-Kalispell) beat me to it. Lavin was previously a police officer. He and other police officers admittedly donated roadkill game to the food bank on occasion, even though it wasn’t exactly legal. Evidently, my grandmother was not the only outlaw! No doubt there were many other closet lawbreakers. It was the right thing to do.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose.

I have enjoyed many roadkill deer over the years. Most were processed exclusively to fill the freezer with delicious steaks and roasts. Others were made partially or entirely into jerky and utilized as trail food for walkabouts and canoe trips. Processing roadkill deer is an essential component of our Green University® LLC internship program. Interns are encouraged to pick up roadkill game for processing. They learn how to properly gut, skin, and butcher the animals, as well as how to soften or braintan the hides and make fashionable buckskin clothing.
Montana is especially rich with roadkill game. There are only about a million people in the state, somewhat less than the combined population of deer, antelope, elk, and moose. Montana is also the fourth largest state, with a lot of long, empty roads that are often driven a little too fast. Thus, drivers face about a 1 in 77 chance of hitting a deer in any given year, compared with a 1 in 232 chance in neighboring Idaho.
Drivers are most at risk of hitting deer during the fall breeding season. Deer disperse during the summer while the females raise their fawns, but group together in the fall and winter. The late season routine covers more area and takes the animals into unfamiliar territory. In addition, male deer wander more in search of females. The learning curve is steep, as vehicular selection removes a great many inexperienced deer from the gene pool. The survivors are less likely to be hit during the winter months, once the herds have established a familiar routine. Mortality rises again in the spring as the herds separate once again.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours.

To avoid a collision, it is important to reduce speed in the spring and fall during the evening, night, and early morning hours. Be especially careful where irrigated alfalfa fields line the highways. Whitetail deer breed like rabbits on the rich food. Driving these corridors can be a bit like running the proverbial gauntlet. The odds of colliding with a deer is substantially higher in these few key locations than elsewhere in the state. Drivers who blow by at seventy miles an hour without full light are courting disaster. In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed. Nationwide, about two hundred people die in collisions with deer every year. By that measure, these docile creatures are the most dangerous wild animals in North America!
Montana’s new roadkill law makes the best of a bad situation. It is good news for Montanans. Any family of limited means can now put healthy, organic free range food on the table and thereby save money and improve their financial situation. Moreover, they don’t need to buy a gun or a tag or wait until hunting season to feed the family. Anyone who is thrifty like me will no doubt butcher their own, but other people will haul roadkill game to the butcher shop, providing additional four-season employment.
Montana’s roadkill law applies only to roadkill deer, antelope, elk, or moose. Salvaging other roadkill game, such as pheasants, grouse, geese, mountain lions or bears, still isn’t legal. (However, no permit is required for nongame roadkill, such as rabbits or coyotes.) The law was supposed to take effect October 1st, but wrangling over the rules and procedures delayed implementation of the law until November 26th, 2013. The final rules are very user friendly to anyone interested in salvaging game.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

In addition to the unfortunate death of the animal, the damage to a vehicle can run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars, and passengers are often injured and sometimes killed.

A “Vehicle-Killed Wildlife Salvage Permit” is required for each animal taken, but the permit is presently free. A law enforcement officer can issue the free permit if they happen to be at the scene of the collision. Otherwise, individuals are required to apply for a permit online within twenty-four hours after picking up an animal. The permits serve as a tracking system for wildlife officials to watch for signs of misuse of the program. Law enforcement officers may occasionally require inspection of the animal, parts, and meat and/or they may ask to see where the animal was picked up along the road. It is a sensible check-and-balance system to help reduce abuse of the program by poachers who might shoot game and try to claim it as roadkill.
Salvaged game must be entirely removed from the roadway by the permittee. It is okay to field dress the animal on site, but the entrails and all other parts of the carcass must be removed to avoid attracting scavengers and predators to the roadside. The meat must be used for human consumption and may not be used as bait for hunting predators. And despite anecdotes to the contrary, the Montana Food Bank Network officially does not accept donations of road-killed game.
      One aspect of the rules I question is that citizens are not supposed to kill animals wounded in collisions. The individual is expected to call a law enforcement officer to the scene to finish the job. However, the more humane thing to do is to put the animal out of its misery right away. A blunt instrument to the head, such as a crowbar or tire iron, is highly effective. Death is instantaneous and humane, and it is the moral thing to do. Aside from that issue, I wholly support the new roadkill law, and I am glad to have competition for the resource from other Montanans. I would rather come home empty-handed, knowing that the meat went to someone else’s freezer, than see perfectly good meat go to waste on the side of the road. I believe my grandmother would have felt the same way.

Thomas J. Elpel is the founder and director of Green University®, LLC and Outdoor Wilderness Living School (OWLS). He is the author and producer of numerous books and videos. Harvesting and processing roadkill game is detailed in his book Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills and expanded upon in his forth-coming book, Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.

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