November 11, 2015; Great Falls Tribune (Associated Press)

Don Thomas used to write for Ducks Unlimited magazine as a columnist and field editor until a magazine editor terminated him on Monday, saying that he had unfairly attacked media mogul Jim Kennedy, the chairman of Cox Enterprises and a big donor to DU, by writing an article critical of him in another publication, Outside Bozeman. (Kennedy is also a former board member of DU.)

A lawsuit has been brought against Kennedy over public access to the Ruby River, which crosses his Montana ranch. In his article, Thomas suggested that Kennedy thought he was too rich to adhere to the law.

Editorial director Matt Young has basically admitted to the reason for the termination in a follow-up letter to Thomas, which justified the action based on the fact that the article contained personal attacks against “a member of the DU family.”

“We simply cannot condone this type of vitriol directed by one of our contributing editors toward a dedicated DU volunteer, who is among the nation’s most ardent and active waterfowl conservationists,” Young’s letter said.

Thomas, who has never been an employee of the organization but has written for them since 1998, believes that Kennedy ordered his firing and that it was inappropriate. For his part, DU spokesman Matt Coffey released a statement that said Thomas has the right to express himself but Ducks Unlimited has the right to choose who contributes to its publications:

We felt that the article demonstrated a lack of fairness in vilifying a member of the DU family without allowing that person the opportunity to provide his perspective.

He denies any push from Kennedy.

Thomas has published a letter in the newsletter for EMWH—Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat—explaining the situation from his point of view. He wrote that the influence of big money threatens both the freedom of the press and the integrity of DU:

As an outdoorsman and conservationist who supports the North American Model and the Public Trust Doctrine, I find DU’s action reprehensible. As a journalist, I find it chilling. Wildlife advocates today face ever increasing pressures to abandon these principles in favor of the commercialization of our public resources, largely from wealthy individuals like James Cox Kennedy. If every journalist reporting on these issues faces this kind of vindictive retribution, the future of wildlife and wildlife habitat—not to mention the hunters and anglers of ordinary means who form the backbone of groups like DU—is bleak indeed.

This issue is not about me or my professional relationship with Ducks Unlimited magazine. It is about integrity and the future of wildlife in America. If you share my concerns—especially if you are a DU member—I encourage you to contact the organization, express your opinion, and take whatever further action you might consider appropriate.

“This is not about my job,” Thomas said. “This is about the inappropriate influence of money in the decision-making process of a grassroots organization and the freedom of the press.”—Ruth McCambridge