By Rob Chaney - June 17, 2018 - Originally published in the Missoulian.
Ever wonder why Interstate 90 takes such a winding route along the St. Regis River as it climbs toward Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border?
“I guess you can thank me for that,” author and wildlife advocate Jim Posewitz admitted during a stop in Missoula last week.
Initial designs called for a much straighter road that would have rechanneled the river and destroyed its fishery. In one of his many campaigns to preserve Montana’s wild creatures and places, Posewitz used his persuasive powers to make federal freeway builders respect the needs of trout.
Thousands of hunters got their introduction to big-game ethics through Jim Posewitz’s first book, “Beyond Fair Chase.” Now the 83-year-old Helena resident recounts the experiences that helped him build that ethic through years of fighting for Montana’s wildlife and wild places.
In “My Best Shot,” Pozewitz’s autobiography covers the struggle to keep the Yellowstone River undammed at Paradise Valley and to make oil prospectors respect the elk habitat on the Rocky Mountain Front. Posewitz served essential roles in various posts at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Department and its predecessors, as well as an independent advocate.
“When I got off the train here in 1953, I had no idea where all these conservation resources that make Montana great came from,” Posewitz said. “I earned two college degrees and never spent a quarter of an hour on history, culture or ethics of conservation, just the science. When I finally got into that story, I couldn’t quit.”
One of the seminal stories was Theodore Roosevelt’s account of coming to Montana to kill a buffalo in 1883, when he was a 24-year-old New York state legislator. The future president recounted traveling for days “never out of sight of a dead buffalo, and never in sight of a live one” after the last great commercial slaughter of America’s bison herds had taken place. Roosevelt went on to protect 230 million acres of public land from unregulated exploitation.
“I realized we could stop poachers and set seasons and bag limits, but we had very little law protecting habitat,” Posewitz said. “And I had no power other than persuasion. So I took courses in creative writing at Carroll College (in Helena) because I had to convince the Montana public that this place was worth saving. And the color I needed just poured out of Montana history.”
For example, he learned that the first Territorial Legislature in 1864 passed a law limiting the take of fish to hook-and-line angling, to stop miners from blasting lakes and streams for food.
Posewitz served as a field biologist for Montana’s wildlife managers and eventually became the Environmental Resources Division administrator. There he challenged several state governors and business interests with his dedication to protecting big game and fish.
“Falcon Press editor Bill Schneider called me up and asked me to write a book on hunter ethics,” Posewitz said. “I had never written a book before. He tossed a copy of Strunk and White’s 'Elements of Style' (a standard and very brief writing guidebook) in my lap and said ‘I want it just like this.”
Posewitz went on to write four more books on hunting and ethics, as well as to fight for public access and hunting opportunities. Last week, the Missoula-based Backcountry Hunters and Anglers dedicated a special library of hunting history and culture books in Posewitz’s honor.
“He really showed me that your voice counts as an individual,” said Land Tawney, director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and godson of Posewitz. “He showed that our conservation legacy is built on people taking hard actions.”
Posewitz said it takes time and effort to understand the value of public lands and wildlife.
"When I first came to Bozeman, I bought a hunting license and borrowed a gun and went up on Bridger Mountain," he said. "I shot my first deer a quarter-mile from the big 'M.' I had no idea why that deer was there or why that public land was there, and I didn't even care. I didn't realize at the time how those things enrich your life."