Of Race Cars and Banked Tracks (Elk and Wolves)

By Bob Ferris
 
“At issue is how wildlife is managed in this country. Our belief is based on more than 100 years of the most successful wildlife management model in the world that our state agencies are to manage wildlife within their respective borders. That includes management of gray wolves along with other predators.” David Allen letter to Congressman Peter DeFazio dated July 10, 2014 
Elk US FWS
 
An Open Letter to David Allen of the  Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
 
July 11, 2014
 
Mr. David Allen
President and CEO
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
5705 Grant Creek
Missoula, MT 59808
 
Dear Mr. Allen,
 
As much as I enjoy reading your declarative statements about complicated issues you clearly know very little about, I find that I must interrupt that pleasure and interject a few comments.  Again, as I have before (1,2,3,4,5).  
 
There is a lot to criticize in your letter starting with the disrespectful and unprofessional omission of the “Dear” in the salutation to a sitting Congressman (here are some helpful tips on writing to elected officials), but I want to set all of that aside and focus on this gem of a paragraph at the top of this page and also your general invoking of science.    
 
Ignoring the question about whether or not wildlife in your first sentence should be treated as a plural in this context (i.e., multiple species and in multiple settings) and setting aside the fact that the following sentence is poorly written, this whole paragraph demonstrates that you are laboring under a tall tower of misconceptions as jumbled as your second sentence.  And while it might seem advantageous for you to pull a state’s rights page out of the Cliven Bundy handbook at this point, you should take some time and actually look at conservation history in this country before acting the expert as you have.  
 
While completing that exercise you would come to understand that market hunting—what caused your elk to decline precipitously in the first place—was largely allowed or inaffectively opposed by the states. But it wasn’t until the federal government stepped in with the Lacey Act in 1901 and other similar federal legislation as well as international treaties (Heaven forbid, Edna, he’s talking Agenda 21) that market hunting finally took a powder.
 
Certainly there were actions from both levels of government, but it is a complicated relationship.  And my sense is that you seem to have problems with these complex relationships like, for instance, why wolves and elk are seemingly at odds but really need each other to prosper in the long run.  All this led me to believe that perhaps no one has taken the time to explain these relationships in terms that you can understand—you do, after all, lack grounding in ecology and any direct experience in conservation or natural resources policy.  I have taught ecology, worked as a biologist and participated in policy for more than 30 years, so let me take a stab at that. 
 
You come from NASCAR so let’s start there.  NASCAR is a sport born out of bootlegging and running from federal revenuers.  The best initial drivers were the ones that ran more ‘shine faster and kept it on the road.  So we have a good example of natural selection here as those who did not were removed from the population by running into trees, rocks or handcuffs.  
 
In essence this sport involves running a car at high speeds around a banked track (my wife’s family once owned a tire company and stock cars so she is coaching me).  The car, driver and engine provide the speed and excitement while the banked track—for the most part—keeps cars and drivers from spinning out of control with potentially fatal repercussions.  If you think of the cars and drivers as the "states" and the banked track as the "federal government," this analogy works for the North American model of wildlife management and why it has functioned as it has over the years.  As much as you want to invoke the 10th Amendment you cannot have a successful model without both parties playing and it is folly to think so (see also this analysis on the North American Model).
 
But there is more.  In the western states a lot of the wild habitat is owned by the federal government so they become even more important in this relationship, not less, as your paragraph has characterized.  In addition when you look at Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where the flow of federal money is positive (i.e., more federal monies flow into the states than flow out in federal taxes) the folks who are paying to maintain and keep those habitats are from all over the country and therefore federal in nature.  And since what we are talking about in this proposal by Congressman DeFazio is mostly federal forest lands perhaps a more open and welcoming attitude in this should be exercised by you.  (Just a suggestion.)  
 
The funny thing is that the relationship between elk and wolves is very similar and the NASCAR model works here too.  Wolves prevent elk populations from spinning out of control by overshooting the carrying capacity of their habitat; being too numerous or concentrated thus more subject to disease; and accumulating too many of the wrong kind of alleles (variants of genes) that normally would be selected against just like the bad bootleggers referenced above by the process of natural selection.  These seem to be foreign concepts to you as you continually mischaracterize what is happening in Yellowstone though your organization has paid for and been briefed on the science by folks like Dr. Arthur Middleton. 
 
Moving on to the topic of science, your condemnation of Congressman DeFazio’s lack of scientific justification is ironic coming from someone who has called for a reduction of all predator populations in the absence of any scientific justification for that collection of actions.  This is made even more ironic given your organization’s tight relationships with the cattle and timber industries both of which through grazing and herbicide use displace elk and degrade elk habitat.  And the science on the increased likelihood of disease transference when wildlife populations are concentrated at supplemental feeding stations that are supported by you and RMEF further calls into question your dedication to science, scientific principles or even prudent wildlife management.
 
Perhaps you and others in your organization have trouble with complex analyses or dealing with data in general.  That was certainly apparent when you rolled out your page on wolves and elk using truncated graphs that were purposely misleading.  Your constant arguing that wolf populations are too high because they are well above minimum recovery goals may sound like science to you and many of your adherents, but it is not.  These were simply numbers indicating when the shift from federal recovery management to state recovery could happen.  Nothing more, nothing less.
 
Are wolf numbers too high in the Northern Rockies states as you have repeatedly claimed and inferred? Probably not.  Right now the wolf densities in these states are about one fifth of what we see in British Columbia with about the same land area.  Certainly there are habitat and human density differences between BC and the Northern Rockies states but there is unlikely a five-fold carrying capacity differential and there are many in BC who think that their wolf density is too low.  
 
And while you are madly trying to claim this scientific high ground, there is nothing in your rhetoric that shows any acknowledgement of the ecological value of wolves, their impact on other predators such as cougars and coyotes, and any appearance of a mental governor on your talking points as evidence emerges of the importance of maintaining social structure in packs and the need for large numbers of wolves across a broad landscape in order to realize the promised benefits of trophic cascades and meso-predator release.  
 
Circling back to the original premise for your letter, I will not tell you that Yellowstone wolves killed outside the Park will cause population calamity as that would be just as disingenuous and unfounded as  your claims that science dictates that predators—particularly wolves—need to be controlled and that their current levels are too high.  That said, these near-park boundary mortalities do impact the population.  
 
My concern, which is science-based, has to do with the value of these animals as part of a well-studied population free from interference.  Now you might—having never conducted scientific research yourself—not consider these animals and the data their continued existence contributes to our overall understanding of complex predator-prey relationships valuable but many of us do.  And quite frankly I long for a day when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is once again led by someone who might similarly value research and understand that successful conservation is more about appreciating the complexity of these natural systems and all their parts and less about marketing fear and innuendo like a pair of jeans or stock car race.  
 
Now granted some of the above is certainly facetious in nature and somewhat patronizing.  And I would be annoyed and offended if something similar was done to me.  But at some point, Mr. Allen, you have to ask yourself which is the greater sin, the facetiousness and patronizing tone I employ or your misstatements and missteps that make this sort of response not only appropriate but necessary?  
 
Sincerely,
 
bob's signature
 
 
 
Bob Ferris
Executive Director
 
 
 

3 Responses to Of Race Cars and Banked Tracks (Elk and Wolves)

  1. Kristi Lloyd says:

    Bob, thank you for such a well-written explanation of the RMEF and it's anti-wolf stance and the lack of education, knowledge, experience that David Allen has on wildlife issues.   RMEF's credo is Hunting IS Conservation…well, he might think so but if he had even a shred of understanding of how wolves live and operate and the benefits of having them on the landscape he would not be encouraging hunting them.   More hunters like you Bob, need to keep spreading the word about the value of wolves (and other predators) and keep people like Mr. Allen "in check".  Thank you for another fabulous article!

  2. Josh Leavitt says:

    In the past market hunters reviled men like Roosevelt and Leopold, now they seek shelter in their legacy.

  3. Jim Maloney says:

    Hi Bob. While I agree with the vast bulk of your open letter, I will note that I take exception to your remarks about "writing letters" to officials. Many elected or appointed officials have, by their actions or inactions, forfited their claim to being either "honorable" or "dear". While John Muir may have been such a gentleman of his time to use the charitable salutations, I doubt Ed Abbey in his most direct missives bothered with such niceties.  Just my 2 cents. Keep up the good work.

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