One of the goofier gaffes Mitt Romney has made on this year's campaign trail occurred when he mentioned a recent Montana hunting trip but couldn't seem to remember whether he had pursued elk or moose.
Dig deeper, though, and that hunting trip reflects something more sinister than a slip of the tongue. President Theodore Roosevelt left America a rich legacy of abundant wildlife and millions of acres of public lands. But influential and well-heeled hunters are stabbing Theodore Roosevelt in the back by trying to recruit Mitt Romney to undermine TR's legacy.
Roosevelt championed a simple idea that is the foundation of all conservation and wildlife management in North America. That is the idea that wildlife belongs to all of us, not just to the rich or the land-owning elite.
This is the linchpin that holds together America's national parks, forests and wildlife refuges and that inspired the successful effort to rescue game animals like whitetail deer, turkey and elk from near-extinction, as well as the attempt to save endangered species like peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
This is a uniquely American commitment. In Europe, wildlife has traditionally been considered the property of the landowner or nobility. Hunting and fishingthe little that remainsis entirely in the hands of the elite. The idea that wildlife belongs to all citizens and should be managed by professionals using sound science is called the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Most hunting and conservation groups, including conservative, venerable hunting and gun organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club, embrace the model.
But not everyone. In particular, meet Don Peay and Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. The group was founded in Utah and has spread throughout the West. One state at a time, SFW is dismantling the very idea of a public wildlife resource and replacing it with special privileges for the privileged.
In Montana, SFW is pressuring county commissioners to circumvent the state wildlife commission on predator management. In Arizona and Idaho, SFW is lobbying legislatures to allow landowners to own and sell hunting privileges, independent of the rules all other citizens have to live by.
In Alaska, SFW worked to have its state president, Corey Rossi, appointed head of the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Rossi had no professional credentials, but loads of political connections. Today, Rossi stands accused of violating game laws he was sworn to defend. That's gotten a bit of press, including a recent interview where Don Peay spelled out SFW's radical agenda.
Speaking to the Anchorage Daily News, Peay dismissed Theodore Roosevelt's legacy as "socialism" that needs to be "revisited."
"We understand the North American model, where wildlife belongs to the people, but we're also seeing dramatic reductions in game populations in the western United States under that model," he said.
This reading of history puts Peay and SFW in some pretty lonely company. But lonely company can include the powerful, and in Alaska, that company included then-Gov. Sarah Palin. It also leads to Mitt Romney, the most likely Republican nominee for president.
Just who took Mitt Romney on that almost memorable mooseor was it elk?hunt in Montana? Don Peay, who bragged of this political connection in an email to members of SFW.
Romney hails from Massachusetts, a state lacking in wildlife and wildlife habitat. Recently, he revealed how little he knows about the nation's public land. "Unless there's a valid, legitimate and compelling public purpose, I don't know why the government owns so much of this land," said Romney, campaigning in Nevada.
I suppose Romney could crack a history book and read why Theodore Roosevelt and others created this public estate that fills most Westerners with pride. Instead, he listens to Don Peay. Something tells me they're talking about big bucks, but not the ones with antlers.
What can sportsmen do? Here's a suggestion: Before you give a dime to a "conservation organization" or give a vote to a political candidate, make sure they answer this question: Do you believe the wildlife of North America belong to all of us, equally, or do you think it should be sold to the highest bidder?"
If they don't answer, or answer wrong, keep looking. They aren't looking out for you.
Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an outdoorsman, author and conservationist in Kalispell.