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Cowboys and Realtors

The mythical West lives on - even as the wealthy, the leisured and the retired buy into Big Sky Country. An essay.

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Grizzlies in northwest Montana are being shot and possibly poisoned at an unprecedented pace since the bears were listed more than three decades ago as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The carcass count—22 killed in the past two years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—worries biologists in charge of the grizzlies' otherwise successful comeback. Federal investigators have suspects in the killings but have filed no charges, and they have struggled to find local residents willing to help their investigations. Yet what is most revealing about this serial slaughter is what it says about the West's abiding inability to understand itself.

Permit me to explain.

The killing is taking place in and around the splendidly scenic Flathead Valley, where the chasm between facts and myths of life in the West continues to widen.

Flathead County—a gateway to Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness—has boomed over the past 15 years, with 39 percent population growth, rising incomes and falling unemployment. The county is emblematic of most of western Montana and the rest of the Rocky Mountain West, where a rapidly growing population is, on average, richer, better educated and more luxuriously housed than any previous generation. Retirement income, most of it belonging to newcomers, is the primary engine behind this economic transformation. For Montana as a whole, it amounts to about three times the combined income from farming, ranching, logging, and oil and gas exploration, according to Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group in Bozeman.

At the same time, jobs in logging are fading fast. In the Flathead, the disappearance of these physically demanding jobs—tied by history and myth to the very core of what it means to be a self-made Montanan—has coincided with the closure of roads in federal forests to protect grizzlies. Many longtime residents of the Flathead have been quick to link coincidence with causality. Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, a local group that wants more access to federal land, told federal game managers late last year that grizzly-driven resentment may well be behind the rising number of dead bears.

But if angry ex-loggers or ex-miners in northwest Montana are indeed killing grizzlies—and federal investigators, so far, say they have found no hard evidence of this—they are attacking a mainstay of the region's new recreation-based economy.

That economy has triggered explosive growth in the local housing industry, providing good jobs to blue-collar workers who in previous decades worked in the woods or the mines. Many of the palatial new homes built in the valley in the past two decades are high up in grizzly country. The bears, whose numbers have rebounded impressively over the past 30 years (recent poaching notwithstanding), are commercially crucial symbols for a landscape that is marketed as healthful and wild. The word "grizzly," as wrapped into company logos, letterheads and ad campaigns, helps business owners in the Flathead Valley sell everything from interior decoration to welding supplies. To manage what can be a dicey proximity of man and beast (grizzlies do occasionally attack and even eat people), the state of Montana employs a game warden in the area whose full-time job is to teach the rising number of people and grizzlies how to get along.

Like many Westerners, Montanans tend not to understand themselves, their landscape or their politics—at least not from an economic point of view.

"They look in a rearview mirror," says Thomas Power, chairman of the economics department at the University of Montana in Missoula. "Views of the economy are tied to what people learned from their parents and their grandparents. It even affects the new population. Those folks buy into an imagined fantasy of what life in Big Sky Country is all about. That fantasy is part of their reason for living in the West."

Brian Schweitzer, a mint farmer who in 2004 was elected Montana’s first Democratic governor in 16 years, told me that Western politicians have to pay careful attention to the disconnect between economic reality and the fantasies floating around inside the heads of voters, especially male voters. He said that two statewide elections (he lost a race in 2000 against Republican Senator Conrad Burns) taught him the importance of those fantasies, even while reaching beyond them.

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