Was Yellowstone's John Dutton an Eco-Terrorist?

The fifth season of Paramount’s hit drama Yellowstone, started on Sunday. More popular than ever, it was the most watched scripted premier of 2022.

The first two episode’s tension hinges on the historic Dutton Montana cattle ranch and the forces jockeying to take away patriarch John Dutton’s way of life. Coastal developers, Native American tribes and environmentalists are on one side, the Duttons on the other.

Portrayed by Kevin Costner, season five opens with John Dutton pursuing the Montana governorship only as a means to protect his family’s ranch. In his acceptance speech, Dutton lays out the stakes:

Environmentalists; they just love to debate what’s Montana’s most valuable resource? Is the water, or is it the walls? Is it the trees? The answer is actually pretty simple. It’s you. Cowboys and ranchers live with the land, off of it.

Yellowstone has trafficked in well worn tropes portraying environmentalists before. What was interesting in episode two, was a flashback to a younger Dutton. Designed to underscore how far he will go to protect the ranch, viewers witness young Dutton (Josh Lucas) cold cocking a construction company manager. Contracted to build a cellphone tower, the manager was spraying an “EPA approved” pesticide that found its way into Dutton’s water. Some of his cows died.

Later that night, Dutton and his men destroy the company’s construction equipment. Next, they steal the pesticides and dowse the manager and his house in the toxic agri-chemicals.

The FBI once defined “ecoterrorism” as:

the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons

and viewed “monkeywrenching,” as:

a euphemism for acts of sabotage and property destruction against industries and other entities perceived to be damaging to the natural environment.

Maybe its self-defense, maybe its revenge, but Dutton’s actions definitely fall into the monkeywrench category. What’s next for Montana’s new Governor, glue himself to a fat cat’s private jet in protest of coastal developers pillaging the state?

I appreciate Yellowstone’s commitment to telling environmental stories. But I’ll keep my expectations low for any conversations about the meat industry’s climate impacts. Ranch owner and show creator Taylor Sheridan was just announced as the keynote speaker at the National Cattlemen Beef Association’s annual meeting.

NCBA it should be noted, has not historically been a friend of the independent cattle rancher. And the well-heeled lobbying group has adopted a fossil-fuel-style, doubt-sowing communications campaign to thwart climate change accountability.

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