A once-proud conservation group has lost its way

  • Ron Wolf

Recently, the family of Olaus J. Murie demanded that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation cancel the organization’s Olaus J. Murie Award. The surprising reason? The foundation’s “all-out war against wolves is anathema to the entire Murie family.”

I sympathize with the family’s position for several reasons. 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, who did groundbreaking work at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the 1940s, also wrote Elk of North America, the first comprehensive and scientific treatise on elk and elk management.

During most of its 28-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 Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, as its director.  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 on 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.  "To keep wolf populations controlled, states will have to hold hunts, shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens,” he said.

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, director of the Western Watersheds Project and the Wolf Recovery  Foundation, said that foundation director “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, which he now calls ‘extremist.’” “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 that shows that when wolves are restored to an ecosystem, both habitat and elk herds improve. Allen’s claims are not backed by science.

“Mr. Allen and his anti-wolf rhetoric has 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 over the years,” said Bob Ferris, a 30-year wildlife researcher who was involved in bringing wolves back to the Yellowstone ecosystem.

The family of Olaus J. Murie, the “father” of modern elk research and management, agrees with these criticisms. A foundation that once understood the complex relationship between elk and wolves has succumbed to the pressures of hunters who don’t like wolves.

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 and lives in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Aug 31, 2012 07:05 AM
A former employee writes a sour grapes screed against the folks that he used to work for, really.

I have a filter on Google that sends me all articles related to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, (RMEF), and over the past couple of months there have been a plethora of articles in small newspapers of the Northern Rocky Mountains written by mostly Bob Harris mentioned in the second to last paragraph here.

Bob runs a radical environmental group called Cascadia Wildlands and apparently he “reached out” to one of Muries now very elderly sons who penned a letter that reads amazingly just like an anti hunting pro wolf extremist would have written. Hyperbole and things just plainly untrue.

Most of the articles related to the RMEF that my filter kicks up are about them conserving another few thousand acres here or another few thousand there, in states and places as widespread as Tennessee and Wisconsin. They do the hard work of conservation that doesn’t make headlines. Removing barbed wire and making long term agreements with landowners and federal agencies over habitat conservation, 6.1 million acres to date.

Recently their president, David Allen, the same Dave Allen mentioned so disparagingly in the above article, was named by Secretary of Interior Salazar and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak to again serve on the Wildlife Hunting Heritage Conservation Council. The council provides guidance on all issues that might affect sportsman, everything from wolves to habitat to water resources. Vilsak said people appointed to the Council are those who are “uniquely qualified to advise us on the full range of issues addressed by the Council while reflecting the true conservation spirit of our nation’s outdoor traditions.”

My message to the writer of this hit piece is to get over it. Probably many things you thought about elk and wolves have been proven wrong. Many people make mistakes. The true measure of a scientist, a conservationist, or a man, is how they react when what they previously thought is proved to be untrue. David Stalling instead of using out of context or just plain untrue quotes about your former employer why don’t you work to restore elk herds that have been decimated and work towards the scientific management of wolves?
Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Aug 31, 2012 08:48 AM
"Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF), National Rifle Association (NRA), Safari Club International (SCI), Boone and Crockett Club, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), Wild Sheep Foundation, American Sheep Industry Association, Public Lands Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Pope and Young Club"

The excerpt above is from a press release by the RMEF about a letter from a coalition to Congress supporting Congressional removal of ESA listing of wolves in the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains in 2011. If there's such a thing as guilt by association, then the RMEF has moved a considerable distance from where they were in the past when they were more closely associated with the Wildlife Federation, the Audubon Society, and similar groups.
Adam Neff
Adam Neff
Sep 05, 2012 04:32 PM
I am torn about the stance taken by the RMEF on wolves. I completely disagree with many of the quotes and opinions made by Mr. Allen and RMEF regarding wolves and how they decimate elk herds and are the biggest threat to current elk hunters. Developers are a MUCH bigger threat.

However, I do believe that once ESA established requirements have been met, management of that species should be turned over to the State. Otherwise why do we have the ESA? In that sense, I understand why they're lobbying to have them delisted.

I guess in the end I still think that RMEF still does a ton of great things from a conservation standpoint. Because of that I'll likely continue my membership with them however, if someone wants to post a list of better conservation groups I'm willing to look into them as well and potentially switch my support.
Blake Osborn
Blake Osborn Subscriber
Sep 07, 2012 02:52 PM
It's really a shame to see such a well-intended organization shift to such an extreme viewpoint.

Mr. Allen is another example of the politically-minded leaders that let the emotion of the cause get in the way of scientific evidence. He seems to be preaching to a constituency of extreme minded individuals that see fear as a motivating factor for decision making.

The shame is, it's the resources that suffer from disastrous leadership.
thomas parks
thomas parks
Feb 21, 2016 06:48 PM
I remember during the wolf introduction to YNP reading and hearing that the wolves wouldn't impact the rest of the state outside the park because they were only going to have enough wolves to live in the park . Now we have wolves in Wy, Mt, Id, Wa, Or, and Ca! If the numbers have gotten so large that wolves are now 1000 miles from the park, why shouldn't they be managed?
David M Campbell
David M Campbell Subscriber
Oct 25, 2016 07:46 AM
No question RMEF has done a great deal of good. They helped fund prescribed burns for wildlife for many years across the west. However the conflict between members who simply want more and bigger Elk with less competition and those who see elk as part of a complete ecosystem that includes wolves has them in a bind and the stance for trapping seems to indicate elk lovers and not ecosystem lovers are in charge. Once again Aldo Leopold had it right, perhaps they need to read Thinking like a Mountain and try to listen to the howl of a wolf more objectively.
Kaine Zetterberg
Kaine Zetterberg
Nov 03, 2016 01:37 PM
I see this is an old article, but it just popped up on my news feed today. I just want to illuminate the author's use of opinions from individuals with heavily vested interests in wolf reintroduction, and portraying them as unbiased experts.

An educated unbiased opinion would see RMEF's stance on the subject of wolf management is based on the population objectives. Those population objectives set by federal wildlife biologists, and minimum estimated wolf counts have far surpassed the levels deemed necessary for sustainable wolf recovery. RMEF has contributed substantially to collaborative efforts with MT Fish Wildlife and Parks to researching impact of wolves on both elk and deer populations. With this information we(Montana citizens) will have better informed management of wolf populations, and ensure their place among our well managed wildlife species. The RMEF contributes to help wildlife officials, hunters, and all other people interested in protection of Montana's wildlife. This article is misinformed, misguided, and a poor representation of the situation.

I do not celebrate all the RMEF has done and is doing, but I will not deny their earned place as an ally to sportsmen and wildlife.