Having worked in orchards and on ranches as a child and young adult, I have a tremendous respect for the folks who actually produce our food. That respect has led me to work diligently over the years to protect farm land, working landscapes, and family farmers. But in all of this we have to be realistic and honest. We also have to understand—particularly when we look at public lands that are owned by all—that there are a myriad of issues that need to be considered and they need to be considered in a rational and equitable manner.
I bring this up because I was disturbed this week by the news coverage over the wolf attack that seriously injured at calf on federal land in eastern Oregon. That calf will likely be put down and that has an impact on that rancher and that needs to be dealt with, but not hysterically. Portraying wolves as another nail in the coffin of ranching is not borne out by reality or experience.
Right now there are 1.3 million or so beef cattle in Oregon and many of those cattle die before reaching market. In fact, in an average year something like 50,000-60,000 cattle die of non-predator related causes in Oregon. That is about 150 head per day. But one calf gets killed by a wolf in 6 months and it is time to ring the alarm bells and call out the cavalry, because wolves are going to put ranchers out of business. This sort of hyperbole is not helpful.
As much as this piece would suggest that the public lands ranching equation is just a wolf and rancher question, it really is not. There are several other vested players in this equation that need to be considered such as hunters and fishermen as well as the growing number of wildlife watchers who visit our public lands. These uses and desires need to be balanced and currently they are not.
We also need to remember that cattle displace both elk and deer. They also muddy trout streams and remove streamside vegetation critical to invertebrate food production for trout and other fish. They also foul potential campsites with their flops. And grazing from all three often impacts bird habitat—both watchable and hunt-able. Sure ranchers pay to graze BLM and Forest Service lands but those fees are generally much lower than private land grazing fees and degradation much higher.
So am I advocating for an end to public lands grazing so we have more wolves as well as more elk, deer, fish and wilderness experiences? No, but I think we need to examine the entire system again and assess the ecological, economic, and social value of each activity. Are elk and elk hunting more valuable and employ more people than cattle grazing? What are the trade-offs to keep cattle away from streams and have vibrant fishing on our public lands again? Which of the activities provides the largest returns to local communities? And are subsidized grazing fees for a few still appropriate in these times of great fiscal stress for many, particularly in those counties that are hardest hit by the economy?
Moreover, we probably need to re-evaluate each in the light of climate change. Studies coming out of Yellowstone at this point are linking the drop in elk populations to climate change related drought conditions. This notion is reinforced by the fact that female elk are in poor condition which leads to low reproductive rates. This makes sense when you realize that July temperatures in Yellowstone are nine degrees higher than normal and brown-up is happening several days earlier than it has in the past. Any shortening in critical summer feeding is going to hurt elk numbers so keeping commercial grazing levels on public lands static does not seem like a logical course.
Poisoning and trapping of so-called predators and killing rodents, and the related insecticide and herbicide programs, are evidences of human immaturity. The use of the term 'vermin' as applied to so many wild creatures is a thoughtless criticism of nature's arrangement of producing varied life on this planet. – Olaus Murie
Right after the Mexican wolves were released in the Southwest I was at a DC press conference with Dave Parsons, Craig Miller, and other drivers of the restoration project. I was interviewed after the event by a reporter from USA Today who asked me what wolves needed to survive. My answer was quick and flippant and was a follows:
“Wolves are very resourceful. All they need to survive is for people not to shoot them.”
That quote was picked up in papers across the country and eventually ended up being the quote of the year in the Chicago Tribune and still seems to pop up now and then on the internet. That is pretty wonderful from a “getting out the message” angle, but the only problem is that I have since found out that I was flat wrong.
As we look at the on-going wolf slaughters in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming my simple admonition of not shooting wolves is clearly not enough. We have to stop trapping them as well. Moreover, we need to make sure that the myths are dispelled and that sound, science-driven policies are enacted and enforced to make sure that robust and viable populations exist to re-colonize other wolf-empty areas in Oregon, Washington, and California.
“To keep wolf populations controlled, [David Allen CEO Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation] said, states will have to hold hunts, shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens.” (Predator, Protector —as Costs Mount, Some Researchers Point Out Benefits. Bend Bulletin Jan. 7, 2012)
Lots of people are spewing misinformation about wolves, but one of the loudest and most boorish is M. David Allen the CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—a once broadly respected, science-driven conservation organization. Mr. Allen is rapidly becoming the “poster child” of why conservation and environmental groups put themselves at risk ethically and intellectually when they hire CEOs who are not adequately grounded in the organization’s field of endeavor. And while Mr. Allen seems extremely capable in the marketing arena as evidenced by his development of strong links with NASCAR, the Pro Bull Riders, and Aflac—all of which help the organization’s bottom-line—his anti-wolf rhetoric has alienated him and his organization from many of the very organizations that have helped RMEF—in subtle and profound ways—garner the successes it has over the years.
The environmental and conservation communities are not monolithic and we all have subtly different cultures—which is exactly why we exist independently. That said it is important that we have continuous and constant dialogs that enable us to come together when the risk is high and we all agree on what needs to be done. Mr. Allen, because of his short tenure as a conservationist and confrontation modus, has violated and stomped all over this long standing culture of agreeing to disagree and then coming together when needed.
I believe the above is a direct result of his lack of grounding and history. He was not, for instance, a member of the conservation community in the mid-1990s (like many current conservation and environmental CEOs) when Newt Gingrich made his ascendancy in the House and we all were taking panicked breaths at the attacks and risks before us. Had he been there he would have likely had a seat at the table organized by Helen Sevier CEO of BASS and eventually called the Natural Resources Summit of America. He would have seen—like I did as the representative for Defenders of Wildlife—the true value of open and candid dialogs between organizations as diverse as Safari Club International and the Humane Society. While we certainly differed on some details, these conversations exposed a great many commonalities and opportunities for future collaboration and respectful disagreement.
Certainly there are times when going boldly by one’s lonesome is absolutely the way to go, but doing it in a fashion that burns bridges and builds walls through vitriolic public disagreements is reflective of poor leadership. What is the risk? The most tangible illustration that comes to mind is RMEF’s endorsement and then backtracking on the Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act, H.R. 1581 in 2011. Simply stated, this was a terrible bill for elk and RMEF’s initial endorsement of the legislation baffled and angered the organization’s supporters and past partners.
Though the organization eventually got praise for listening to their constituency and taking a policy U-turn, the action raised a fundamental question: Is an organization that has to rely on their members and the interested public to keep them from making bad decisions functioning properly? The simple answer to that is: No. I have never in my more than 20-year career as a conservation leader had to reverse my position publicly. My practice is to do my homework—some of which is consulting with my colleagues in other organizations—prior to taking a public position. Of course these dialogs become less frequent and natural if you have alienated your potential allies in the various camps and no longer have access to those differing points of view that help you refine and allow you to test-drive your own point of view.
Perhaps more important here are the concepts of programmatic responsibility and resource stewardship. Organizations should lead and be the best informed and most protective of the resources under their care. In my mind they do not live up to their obligations on both these fronts unless they are informing their memberships on the best positions rather than putting their constituencies in the awkward position of helping the “experts” be the experts they should already be.
I know Mr. Allen has a vision for the organization and it seems to be working for him, but I wonder if he has ever read the mission statement of his organization which reads “to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat.” I wonder if he understands that the “other wildlife” includes wolves and other predators. I wonder too if he is familiar with the work and philosophy of Olaus J. Murie who is celebrated each year by the RMEF through an award named in his honor. Olaus Murie along with his wife Mardy and his brother Adolf were all hugely supportive of predator restoration and protection. My strong sense is that they as well as others in the family would be shocked and disgusted by RMEF recent offer of funds to the state of Montana to kill wolves and other predators.
As I am on a roll here I will also say that folks who refer to Theodore Roosevelt casually often do not understand him or what he stood for. For one thing Mr. Roosevelt was a very learned man so Mr. Allen’s lack of scholarship regarding the natural world and ecological relationships would probably bother the former president. Moreover, Teddy was a fair-chase man who reportedly would not shoot a bear tied to a tree. Therefore, he would likely take a dim view of folks who would call themselves conservationists and sportsmen while at the same time advocating shooting wolves from a plane and gassing wolves in their dens. And I fully acknowledge here that Teddy hated wolves—but there have been a whole lot of paradigm-shifting developments in regard to predator science since his time.
"Natural balance is a Walt Disney movie," he [Allen] said. "It isn't real."
So let’s talk about science. One of my pet bugaboos is non-scientists righteously calling for sound-science because the prevailing science does not agree with their view of the world. We see this in the climate change “debate” and we see it in regards to predators. Natural systems are notoriously complicated and many people have trouble with complicated, multi-faceted systems. And while it seems perfectly logical that predation should lower game populations and life is linear, it simply is not. In fact, the more you study natural systems the more complicated they seem to become.
While Mr. Allen seems a consummate marketer and has nailed messaging that certainly attracts an audience, nowhere in his impressive resume do we see anything that indicates the scientific grounding necessary to sort out the often mysterious and sometimes counter-intuitive world of predator-prey relationships. People are absolutely able—as he probably has—of stuffing information into their heads, but it is more than that. Science—unlike marketing or nearly any other discipline—is less about working until you get an answer and more about looking at everything you can to get the answer and then questioning it. Science begins and ends with curiosity and doubt. This is not the realm where David Allen apparently lives.
Mr. Allen seems perfectly satisfied with taking a position, finding a study that supports his proposition, and then calling it a day. A perfect example of that was his recent promotion of a paper that argued that the presence of wolves lowered reproductive hormone levels in female elk. Mr. Allen is perfectly correct that study claimed to demonstrate that happenstance, but a handful of other studies observed different results as well as suggestions for sampling or classification errors that could have accounted for the discrepancies in the Creel et al. study from 2007 he cited. But instead of examining the issue more thoroughly, Mr. Allen charged ahead once again and used this “evidence” in a letter to an elected official.
“The Elk Foundation's mode of operation can be explained in a single word: partnerships. We are proud of our reputation as a voice of reason, authority and integrity, as a facilitator capable of bringing opposing viewpoints to the negotiating table and then mediating creative and beneficial solutions and forging partnerships for the future.” RMEF Website
I can only conclude from all of this that Mr. Allen has not embraced all that RMEF has represented over the years, but is setting a decidedly different course for the future. His stance of maximizing elk everywhere from ecological and economic perspectives seems myopic and is less than respectful of the collective ownership of public lands and the spectrum of desires of the owners—which includes both pro-wolf factions and ranchers who think elk herds are too large.
When I was in graduate school and we wanted to describe someone who was really, really smart we would say that person had a ten-pound brain. From an outside perspective the RMEF appears to currently include a whole lot more ten-gallon hats than ten pound brains. Not that ten-gallon hats are inherently bad, but if the RMEF is going to be a vibrant and respected institution far into the future there must be a fundamental change in leadership and messaging that will attract the more heavy headed and less knuckleheaded among us. I hope they do a little soul searching because there are a lot of us who would love to see them represent once again the best and not the worst that conservation community has to offer.
P.S. Please sign the Aflac petition and ask them to stop supporting this type of biological bigotry. Thank you.
With Elk and Wolves Someone is Fibbing Todd Wilkinson 2012
The Truth About Wolves is Hard to Find Christina Nealson 2012
Linking wolves and plants: Aldo Leopold on trophic cascades. William Ripple and Robert Beschta. 2005