by Dave Stalling
Dave Stalling is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an elk-hunter, fisherman and wildlife conservationist who lives in Missoula, Mont.
The family of Olaus J. Murie recently demanded that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation cancel the organization's Olaus J. Murie Award.
The reason? The foundation's "all-out war against wolves is anathema to the entire Murie family."
I sympathize with the family's position. In 1999, while working for the Elk Foundation, I created the Olaus J. Murie Award, with the coordination and the approval of the Murie family. The award recognized scientists working on behalf of elk and elk habitat, and was given in the name of Olaus J. Murie because he is widely considered the "father" of modern elk research.
Murie wrote Elk of North America, the first comprehensive and scientific treatise on elk and elk management.
During most of its 28-year-history, the Elk Foundation and its more than 185,000 members, who are primarily hunters, avoided controversy. Instead, the group focused on its mission: "To ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat." Most of the foundation's leaders had solid backgrounds in wildlife biology, ecology and wildlife management, and they resisted the occasional pressure from hunters to get involved in issues such as gun rights or wolf reintroduction.
"We are not a hunting organization supporting conservation; we are a conservation organization supported by hunters," former foundation director Gary Wolfe used to say.
But starting in 2000, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's board of directors changed; many staff members were fired; and the nonprofit group went through a string of short-term directors. Then, in 2007, the foundation board hired David Allen, a former marketer for NASCAR and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. At first, it seemed that Allen would follow a path similar to former leaders.
"We are not a hunting club. We don't intend to be a hunting club. We are a membership organization that has an overwhelming number of hunters ... but we're not doing wildlife conservation to improve our hunting," Allen said when he took the job. That approach did not last long.
"Wolf reintroduction is the worst ecological disaster since the decimation of bison herds," Allen said recently, as he claimed that wolves are "decimating" and "annihilating" elk herds.
When asked about the utility of predator-prey relationships, Allen explained, "Natural balance is a Walt Disney movie. It isn't real." Under his leadership, the Elk Foundation recently offered the state of Montana $50,000 to contract with the federal Wildlife Services agency to "aggressively" kill more wolves. "And the next step is the grizzly bear," he said. "We've got bear issues with elk calves in the spring—both grizzly and black bear. We can't have all these predators with little aggressive management and expect to have ample game herds, and sell hunting tags and generate revenue."
This approach has not gone over well with some conservationists. Ralph Maughan, a director of the Western Watersheds Project and the Wolf Recovery Foundation, said that Allen "has not only taken a strongly anti-wolf position, but he has done it taking an in-your-face way to traditional conservation organizations such as those supported by Olaus Murie. ... Allen has also expressed contempt for many of the concepts of ecology, as he seems to be moving the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation toward a single-species, single-value-of-elk (hunting) approach."
There has been a lot of good, solid research on elk and wolf interactions, some of it funded by the Elk Foundation in years past. Most of it shows that when wolves are restored to an ecosystem, both habitat and elk herds improve.
"Mr. Allen and his anti-wolf rhetoric have alienated him and his organization from many of the very organizations that have helped the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—in subtle and profound ways—garner the successes it has had over the years," said Bob Ferris, a 30-year wildlife researcher.
It's sad that a foundation that once understood the complex relationship between elk and wolves has succumbed to the pressures of hunters who don't like wolves.
This Guest Column ran in the Tucson Weekly on September 20, 2012.
Please submit a letter to the editor of the Tucson Weekly, thanking them for publishing this excellent Guest Column and calling on hunting organizations to educate their members about the important relationships between wolves, ecosystems, and game animals.