On Tuesday, Nate Hegyi, a reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, reported that Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte had trapped and killed a radio-collared wolf from Yellowstone National Park. Because the wolf had wandered out of the park, Gianforte was legally allowed to kill it, but the governor was cited for violating state hunting regulations for failing to take a required wolf-trapping education course. The story raised questions about Gianforte’s honesty and about whether the governor violated more serious hunting regulations.
Slate spoke to Hegyi, who lives in Missoula, on Friday to see how the story had gone down in his state. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: How did this story come about?
Nate Hegyi: I have to protect a source, so I’m going to be vague. I received a tip that the governor had trapped and killed a Yellowstone wolf. And I was like, What? That’s crazy.
The person who tipped me off gave me some pretty critical information that I needed to start my reporting into it. I started asking questions with Montana’s top wildlife agency, and they confirmed that the governor had trapped and killed a wolf near the park, and that he was given a written warning. We decided to do it as a written story first, instead of an audio story. Then it kind of blew up.
How would you say your typical Montanan feels about these Yellowstone wolves?
A typical Montanan, their political views are all across the board. We have these college towns, Bozeman and Missoula, where you’ve got a lot of pretty liberal environmentalists. I’m sure they would be super angry that he killed a wolf so close to the park, and that it was radio-collared. You have animal rights activists. You’ve got people who will spend an entire summer driving around following the wolf packs. And then you have the hunting folks here in the state—who may not be bothered about the wolf trapping itself, because that’s perfectly legal in the state of Montana, but would be bothered by the fact that the governor didn’t take the trapping course, because it’s like taking driver’s ed before you go driving.
And then you have the super conservative contingent in Montana, including a lot of people who have moved here in recent years from places like California or Texas. They’re coming with a much more Trumpian conservatism that we haven’t really seen much in the state prior to, even, the pandemic. A lot of those new folks are not going to care whatsoever that the governor did this. In fact, they might like the governor more because he did this.
And then you have among a lot of other Montanans a general dislike of wolves. Because they do kill sheep and livestock. They are kind of considered a boogeyman out here in the West. And so the idea of killing a wolf, trapping education or not, doesn’t really bother them, because they see them more as a pest or nuisance.
What has been the wider reaction to your story?
If you look at it nationally, there’s definitely an expected rage. That didn’t surprise me. But within Montana, it’s more just like, there are more questions. How did he expect to check his traps every day while also serving as governor? You have to check [traps] at least every 48 hours. But ethically, you should be checking it every day. And those traps were set two and a half or three hours south of the Capitol. It’s a very time-intensive thing to do, to trap. Was that the best use of the governor’s time?
Do you know how long those traps were out?
The governor told a local reporter that they’ve been out since January, which would be at least two weeks prior to trapping that wolf. This is where it gets a little wonky. Gianforte was setting traps on a private ranch owned by a big conservative media mogul. And that guy’s ranch manager (who’s also the vice president of the Montana Trappers Association)—his name was also on these traps. And so there’s a good chance that the ranch manager was actually checking the traps for Gianforte. And maybe Gianforte was lucky enough that he was just down there on a federal holiday, and there was the wolf, after two or more weeks of waiting for the animal to get trapped. Was it just serendipitous? Or was the wolf trapped, and the ranch manager found it and called Gianforte? I don’t want to say either way, but that’s my biggest question. If the ranch manager called Gianforte, and Gianforte drove or flew over to kill it, that would have broken the state hunting regulations. You’re supposed to kill it or release it immediately upon seeing it. It’s the more humane thing to do.
Can you tell me about the debates happening with the wolf management policy?
The state legislature is Republican controlled, and for the first time in a couple of decades, we have a Republican governor. And one of their top priorities is pushing through a slate of bills that would make it a lot easier to hunt and trap more wolves, with the goal of reducing the population of wolves in the state. And there’s talk of reimbursing people for the cost to hunt a wolf, which critics call a bounty.
What else do people from outside the state need to know to understand this story?
Wolves are super controversial. In the West, they do kill livestock. Some people rely on cows and sheep to make a living. On the other hand, Montana relies on a lot of tourism. Maybe you went to Yellowstone National Park to see those wolves. The wolves are a big boon for our tourism industry. And so it’s just kind of a very classic push-and-pull between those two camps. Americans had pretty much eradicated the wolf from the West up until 1995, when they were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park. And so it’s still very fresh. They’re like a symbol for the kind of culture wars that happen out West.
Were there any major hurdles you encountered when reporting this story?
I was frustrated with the governor’s office for not answering the questions I posed to them and for not making the governor available for an interview. I think that that’s something we’ve noticed since the Trump era.
Gianforte is famously antagonistic towards reporters.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s just a bummer. Because there has been a culture in the past of openness among both Republicans and Democrats. And it’s been frustrating to watch that culture of openness change. It doesn’t feel very Montanan.