A public fight between legendary conservationists and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation shows why the state’s Fish and Game chief has called a summit to discuss future wildlife policies.
By ROCKY BARKER
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a hunter group that has protected millions of acres of habitat, removed the name of noted elk biologist Olaus Murie from its top conservation award this month after his son asked the foundation to stop its anti-wolf rhetoric. Donald Murie had demanded the group change its policies toward wolves, which he said the foundation is “determined to exterminate.”
“The Murie name must not be associated with the unscientific and inhumane practices you are advancing,” he wrote.
Elk Foundation President David Allen said the group’s policy is not to exterminate wolves, but to have them — and all wildlife — managed by states.
“We certainly don’t have any disrespect for the Murie family,” Allen said. But, he added, “We aren’t going to change our wolf policy.”
Olaus and Adolph Murie were brother wildlife researchers and conservationists who had a profound effect on wild America. Olaus’ research on Rocky Mountain elk and Adolph’s on wolves in Alaska laid a foundation on which modern wildlife biologists have built.
Olaus and his wife, Mardy Murie, were deeply involved in efforts to protect wilderness. He was executive director of the Wilderness Society until his death in 1963, and she was on its board until her death at 101 in 2003. All of the Muries are revered pioneers of conservation.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation named its highest conservation award after Olaus Murie, and for 20 years after its founding in 1984 it had close ties with environmental groups.
The foundation helped protect more than 6.1 million acres of habitat for elk and other species and reintroduced elk to seven states and Canadian provinces as far east as North Carolina.
It comfortably sat in the middle of U.S. conservation groups, alongside sporting groups like Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League.
It often joined groups like the Nature Conservancy on projects but stayed out of controversial political fights.
CHANGE IN DIRECTION
Then David Allen, a publicist for several NASCAR drivers and pro rodeo organizations, took over as president in 2007.
At the time, the group had been criticized by some sportsman groups for cozying up to pro-wolf groups as the issue was becoming more and more polarized.
Many environmental groups were fighting the delisting of the wolf as an endangered species, even as wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies ballooned to more than 1,500. That’s when Allen went on the rhetorical offensive.
He wrote that elk are not thriving in areas where wolves are present. Environmentalists have called wolf reintroduction one of the great conservation successes of the 20th century. Allen called it “perhaps one of the worst wildlife management disasters since the destruction of bison herds in the 19th century.”
He also was incorrectly quoted as calling for killing wolves from the air and gassing them in their dens.
That was too much for the Murie family, which had fought hard over the years to win respect for predators like wolves.
“Wolves have always been a necessary part of a functional habitat for elk and other wildlife,” Donald Murie wrote. “They have been reintroduced into areas where their absence has resulted in ecological imbalances.”
FINDING A WAY FORWARD
Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game has been caught in the middle of the fight over wolves and other predators revealed by the Murie-Elk Foundation dispute. The disputes among wildlife groups come as cuts in federal dollars and declines in hunting license sales are drying up funds for managing wildlife for hunters and non-hunters alike.
That’s why Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore has pulled out the stops to try to bring wildlife advocates of all stripes together Aug. 24-26 for a Wildlife Summit in Boise and satellite sites statewide. He’s bringing together speakers and groups to talk about the future of wildlife and the agency.
“What we’re trying to do is to get people to set their differences aside and think about wildlife in the broader context,” said Mike Keckler, Fish and Game communications director. “We’re looking to have a conversation and, hopefully, create better understanding and more enthusiasm.”
During the delisting court battles in 2010, Allen and representatives of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the leading pro-wolf groups, had a similar public debate.
Most Defenders members don’t hunt, and many oppose hunting. Ninety-six percent of the Elk Foundation’s members are hunters, and most support what is called the North American model of wildlife management where, unlike Europe and elsewhere, wildlife belongs to the public.
Some hunting groups are now calling this “socialism.” Allen said his group supports public ownership — and Idaho’s wildlife summit.
“I told Virgil we were going to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem,” Allen said.
Suzanne Stone, the Defenders’ representative in Boise, shares the Muries’ view that predators are necessary to help the ecosystem function. But she also is supportive of the summit and its goals.
“We hope the wildlife summit is an opportunity to bring all sides together to promote scientific management of all native species,” she said. “No species should be persecuted as wolves have been, based on false propaganda and misunderstanding of their important role in nature.”
Keckler said the differences won’t be resolved in one weekend.
“We know this is a challenge,” Keckler said, “but we think it’s a worthwhile challenge that is critical for the future.”