Wilson Peak, via

[Ryan Cooper here, filling in for Ed off and on today and tomorrow while he deals with some family stuff.]

I grew up in Utah and Colorado, and after spending some time on the east coast, the importance of sportsman stuff like hunting and fishing to Westerners has become more obvious in my mind. Where in the East, especially the Northeast, those issues are second-tier at best, out West they’re a topic of major partisan conflict.

This tends to be a more state-level area of combat, but a couple days ago sportsman issues took their turn paralyzing the Senate, as Harry Reid brought up a test vote on a bill to give some support to embattled Senator Jon Tester of Montana—in part by bringing home 41 frozen polar bear carcasses that have been stuck in Canada for the last four years:

On its last day in session before the election, the Senate tied itself in knots over 41 polar bear carcasses that hunters want to bring home from Canada as big game trophies…

Tester’s bill combines 19 measures favorable to outdoorsmen. In addition to dealing with the polar bear hides, it would allow more hunting and fishing on federal lands, let bow hunters cross federal land where hunting isn’t allowed, encourage federal land agencies to cooperate with state and local authorities to maintain shooting ranges, exclude ammunition and tackle from federal environmental laws that regulate lead, boost fish populations and protect animal habitat.

Republicans keeled over in a dead faint, protesting that they were shocked, shocked! that the Senate could be used for politics!

Republicans resisted for a while Friday, contending the only reason Reid wanted the vote now on the bill long sought by hunters and sport fishermen was to benefit Democratic incumbent Jon Tester ‘s re-election prospects in a tossup race in Montana that could determine which party runs the Senate next year.

“This isn’t a campaign studio, It’s the Senate,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complained on the Senate floor Friday. “We’ve got responsibilities to meet. Let’s meet them. And leave the politics out of it for once.”

Reading between the lines, there is some interesting wrangling going on here. Hunters and fishers tend to be more rural and conservative, but also have a direct conflict of interest with the mining and oil interests that make up a large fraction of the Republican power base and profit directly from wrecking the biosphere. Out west, Democrats like Tester have exploited this conflict as much as possible, shamelessly playing up their outdoorsy sportsman image, with considerable success. As Christina Larson documented in two seminal pieces in this magazine back in 2006, this alliance will probably only get stronger as the effects of climate change take hold and become even more obvious. Massive infestations of pine bark beetles, say, or gigantic wildfires are worse for hunters than most.

Meanwhile, the artheriosclerotic partisan games here are morbidly fascinating. On the one hand, like Matt Yglesias explains, there’s a nice percentage in maneuvering your opponent into voting against a popular bill so you can run against them on it, either through a poison pill or other mechanisms. On the other hand, the opposition might just bite that bullet to deny you the victory, which is especially popular in the arcane and hidebound Senate. You can filibuster and just hope voters aren’t paying attention or the media will blame it on partisan gridlock, or otherwise fail to point out who made the bill fail.

Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: any whining about politics from possible the most nakedly partisan Senate party leader in US history may be safely jettisoned.


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Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanlcooper. Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.