Jackson Hole News and Guide guest opinion by Bob Ferris
Actions and inactions always speak louder than words. So it is very telling that, in the two weeks or so since the Murie family released their eloquent letter urging the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to return to science and tone down their anti-wolf rhetoric, we have heard nothing from RMEF's scientific staff. The silence is profound.
Sure, we were treated to tea party darling Jim Beers' rant on the Skinny Moose blog and saw a remarkably sophomoric press release focusing on wolf killing tips from RMEF, but where are the elk group's biologists? And where, too, are the group's logical and natural defenders from the conservation and hunting communities?
The answers to the above breaks down to one word: Murie. Wildlife professionals of all stripes hold the Murie family and Aldo Leopold's family in very high regard. And as much as RMEF CEO David Allen and his supporters try to ignore or dismiss the significance of this letter -to those of us in the field of wildlife -Murie's epistle is very serious business indeed.
I suspect the casualness with which RMEF electronically ejected Olaus Murie from its website and organizational persona shocked many. It was like it reached into itself and pulled out its own spine and then acted like nothing of note transpired. In all honesty, it really had no response to Donald Murie's concerns about ignoring the science and waging a war on wolves, but it seemed so strikingly abrupt and callous. It clearly had the feel and taste of a sudden death.
In many ways it is like a divorce. Former Bugle editor David Stalling courted the Murie family to establish the award in the late 1990s. At the time, it seemed like a perfect romance: A well-respected conservation organization with a biodiversity mission and elk focus forms a relationship with the family of a legendary biodiversity proponent and acknowledged father of modern elk management. What could be better?
But we all know that people and organizations change. In the case of the elk foundation, midway through is relation ship with the Muries, it started on a pathway that has taken it away from its stated mission. Its return to the dated and biologically selfish model of single-species management is as perplexing to many as its aggressive campaign against wolves in the absence of supporting and conclusive science.
We all have dealt with divorce in our lives, and it is of ten sordid and tawdry. We ultimately end up picking sides, mainly in accordance with our original allegiances to bride or groom. Sitting on the fence rarely seems an option. If we look at RMEF as the groom in this equation, one thing it has failed to grasp fully is that we in the scientific and conservation communities as well as in geographic communities like Jackson Hole, who know and have been touched by the Muries, are die-hard friends of the bride.
Moreover, RMEF does little to improve its public image by doing nothing to police its scant public defenders' efforts to question the motivations and qualifications of the Murie family and also, interestingly, the Leopolds. It is hard for me to describe how fast my blood pressure rose the other day when someone on one of the blogs claimed that Dale Earnhardt had done more for conservation than Olaus Murie or Aldo Leopold. But these are the people attracted to the elk foundation's current messaging. They bring to mind a chorus of drinking buddies who after materially contributing to the break-up besmirch the bride's character.
In my career I have worked more closely with the Leopold family than the Muries, but my recent experiences with the children and grandchildren of Olaus, Mardy, Adolph and Louise have absolutely mirrored that of the Leopolds. They are true conservationists and exude an authenticity that cannot be spun, marketed or photoshopped. These iconic families ushered in a new, more holistic way of looking at ecosystem functions, such as predator-prey relations and the consequences of myopic management schemes like maximizing game populations.
The rich tapestry opened to those taking a biodiversity view cannot adequately be observed via a single-species lens. One prime example is the elk foundation's position on climate change written, by Val Geist. The one-paragraph position from 2004 acknowledges coming changes but views them as largely positive for elk. While the position stops somewhat short of being jubilant, the analysis is extremely limited in terms of factors and potential scenarios. In sharp contrast, scientists working for a consortium of 12 sportsman groups predict dire consequences for elk in the Rockies, including the spread of disease, loss of sagebrush habitat and outright extirpation from areas in their current range. And this latter view is being borne out by experience as we see localized drops in elk population being attributed to drought conditions and related impacts to food resources and timing.
Having worked hard to shore up the finances of several nonprofits during my career, I can certainly understand the board's reticence to make leadership changes when its coffers are expanding in a down economy, but the Murie letter and the community's reaction should be taken to heart. Boards must govern with courage and foresight ever mindful of the fiscal health and reputation of the organization in their care. With David Allen at the helm, RMEF has one of these bases covered, and that is simply not enough.
Bob Ferris is the executive director of Cascadia Wildlands (CascWild.org) and a member of the volunteer team that went to Fort Saint John, British Columbia, in January 1996 to make sure the second translocation of wolves into the U.S. Rockies was not derailed by the government shutdown.