When proponents and opponents of Initiative 169 both applied for booths at the Hamilton Farmers Market, Laura Craig granted their requests but placed them as far apart as she could. Craig is the market's manger, and she feared the two parties might clash. After all, they were on opposite sides of a highly contentious issue: trapping, which the initiative would ban on public lands. Craig's fears turned out to be warranted.
"There was too much contention between the two groups," Craig says. "It was disrupting the customers."
Craig says she received complaints about the tactics of both sides. Signature gatherers from Trap Free Montana Public Lands used a "peculiar" motion to aggressively push their petition sheets on market shoppers, according to Craig. Meanwhile, she says, opponents of the initiative engaged in "horrendous" harassment of those signature gatherers.
On June 14, KC York, chair of TFMPL, called the Hamilton Police Department to report that a man was yelling at her from outside her group's booth. An officer responded. After the man admitted to yelling and apologized for doing so, he was issued a warning for disorderly conduct, says Hamilton Police Sergeant Bob Liercke.
The conflict wasn't contained to the market. In May, TFMPL filed a complaint with the commissioner of political practices, alleging the Montana Trappers Association and Montanans for Effective Wildlife Management had failed to report more than $24,000 raised to fight I-169.
Toby Walrath, the association's president and chair of MEWM, denies his members "did anything that was unethical, illegal or disrespectful" and accuses the other side of running a "hate-focused campaign."
Ultimately, TFMPL failed to gather enough signatures to quality I-169 for November ballots, and York says the tactics of the opposition "absolutely" contributed to the initiative's failure.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl hasn't yet ruled on the complaint filed with his office, but he sees the silver lining in the conflict, characterizing the back-and-forth over I-169 as "democracy in action."
"It's a robust system we're in," Motl says. "People disagree, and political speech is the most robust speech we have of all."