Posts Tagged ‘Elk’

Dec29

Besmirching the Wolf and Roosevelt’s Ghost

wolf-110006By Bob Ferris 
 
“We’re continuing to see an alarming trend in Western wildlife management. I am calling it the “Predator Death Spiral.” The underlying cause of this phenomina [sic] is when a wildlife agency attempts to hide or “pad” their big game population estimates when over predation begins to take hold. This in turn creates a downward spiral that cannot easily be avoided, and is often not even noticed until the state hits both a financial and PR rock bottom.” Guy Eastman, The Predator Death Spiral 
 
When I was in graduate school in the mid-1980s I sat on a panel that was put together by the faculty of the School of Engineering because of a recognized deficit in the engineering curriculum: ecological literacy.  Our panel was asked what might be reasonable classes for engineering students to take to gain them sufficient grounding in ecology to lead them towards designs and approaches that work with nature rather than against it.  
 
The thinking being that by creating engineers who were aware of and sensitive to ecological considerations that we might have dams that do not exterminate fish, underpasses that facilitate migrations and sewage plants that provide tertiary treatment while at the same time creating needed habitat for fish and waterfowl. These were exciting discussions because we could see some ideas first introduced by folks like Buckminster Fuller and Howard Odum in 1960s finally getting some traction. It was for some, the rolling out of ecological engineering and industrial ecology after the requisite two decades incubation from idea to adoption.   It was for others an uninteresting sideshow to be ignored.  
 
You have a degree in Engineering; have you ever worked in the engineering field?
Yes, I did engineering work for three years when I got out of school from 1997 until 2000. I guess I got sick of punching a calculator and decided that going back into the family business would be a better fit for me.
 
I think about these times, this revolution in design and the wide array of opportunities offered, because of an ill-reasoned, poorly presented anti-wolf blog post from 2011 that was recently resurrected on the I-Fish site.  The blog was written by a person who trained as an engineer a decade after the revolution started and left because he saw engineering as simply pushing too many calculator buttons.  He exited after a three-year “career.”  The person in question is Guy Eastman of the Eastman Outdoors conglomerate.  
 
You are a huge advocate for the hunting of wolves. If you were in charge of managing them, how would you do it?
I am pretty anti-wolf. I think wolves do have a place in an eco-system but not this one. The eco-systems in the lower 48 are much too small for super predators like wolves. We are now finding this out the hard way. I would eradicate almost all of the wolves outside Yellowstone National Park and keep the numbers down to a minimum inside the park if it were up to me. I have lived through the second largest big game animal decline in modern history. The only wildlife crisis larger than this one was the market killings of the 1900s that took out all of our buffalo herds and most of our other wildlife populations. Our ancestors have worked extremely hard to bring these populations back from the brink only to be thanked by a bunch of self righteous want to be book worms that call themselves biologists. They are using "super predators" to destroy our wildlife resource right in front of our eyes. They have in essence created massive tracts of biological waste lands throughout Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with their Frankenstein wolf project. Teddy Roosevelt is rolling over in his grave. As with some much that our government does, the very legislation (the Endangered Species Act) that was built to protect our wild life is being used as the very vehicle to destroy it. I hope I wasn't too clear on this one.
 
gordon eastmanThe above interview and the blog post in question are hard for me to reconcile with the Eastman legend on so many levels.  The first mental speed bump for me is that Guy is the grandson of Gordon Eastman who made a little movie called The Savage Wild in 1970 about his experience raising a set of wolf pups in the Yukon for eventual release.  The film is interesting in that the senior Eastman has a sort of implied epiphany in that he acknowledges that he once shot wolves for bounty and memorializes his walking towards the light by portraying trappers intent on killing his pups as villains and eventually killing them off in the story line.  Gordon also did work for Disney on their set of nature films that likely served as cinematic gateway drugs to a generation of field biologists coming of age as environmental awareness blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s.
 
Gordon’s work was pretty progressive given the times.  I made a trip in the mid-1960s in that direction visiting Wells, British Columbia among other places.  Wells at that point was pretty much a frontier town with all wooden sidewalks and I remember walking down Main Street past rack after rack of black bear and wolf skins that could be had for $20 or so.  Supporting trappers of predators was the norm in the area at that time.
 
Given the above, Guy’s attitudes and his anti-wolf as well as his anti-Endangered Species Act (ESA) screeds seem to simultaneously exhibit a lack of perspective and a shortage of self-awareness.  Born shortly after the passing of the ESA, he probably lacks an understanding that the ESA is not only about the species recovery successes since enactment, but it is also about where we could have been had we not taken action.  To fully appreciate the true value of this Act as well as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act one had to experience or take time to investigate the species and environmental trajectories observed during the latter part of the 1960s.  His statements clearly reflect a lack of this perspective.
 
In addition, in his interview and blog post he authoritatively talks about ecological principles as if he has knowledge or experience in these areas.  Unfortunately—for the reasons cited in the opening of this post—he comes off sounding a lot like the youngsters in the popular AT&T commercials explaining to the deadpanned adult why faster is better.  His answers while entertaining are wrong and he is so confident in the sanctity of his bully pulpit that he feels absolutely no obligation to provide supporting evidence for his comments.  
 
Take, for instance, his statement about the size of ecosystem in the lower 48 states.  Experience and nearly 70 years of biological speculation and modelling disagree with his characterization.  Perhaps if he had taken some time and done some research then he would see that there are dozens of habitat and population viability analyses done by PhD biologists and ecologists that indicate that there is an abundance of room for wolves in the lower 48 states (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10).  Moreover, his claim that he has lived through the second largest big game decline in modern history is just plain silly when you compare it to overall elk population numbers and trends which are a mixture of good and bad news but overall much larger than a generation ago (1,2,3,4,5).  
 

His comment about “biological wastelands” is painfully ironic and is similar to the "raisins to grapes" argument in the above video.  Had Mr. Eastman taken a few courses in basic ecology at Purdue he would understand that the classic examples of wastelands—i.e., many Western rangelands, sea urchin barrens, deer on the Kaibab Plateau, and rabbit-chewed landscapes in Australia—are all examples of herbivores destroying ecosystems in the absence of predators.  Evidently the top element of the trophic pyramid in Guy’s world floats above other levels buoyed by some form of ecological anti-gravity rather than supporting levels of increasingly broad consumer groups.  
 
The comment regarding Teddy Roosevelt spinning in his grave is an interesting one.  My sense is that Guy mistakenly sees an roosevelt readingally in Roosevelt when it comes to hating wolves.  Certainly Roosevelt had no love for wolves, but then who did in the late 1800s when he wrote about them? But Roosevelt was also a Harvard-educated progressive and a first adopter of scientific ideas who was a bookworm (see picture of him speed-reading Dickens at right) and frequently carried a worn copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in his saddle bags when he rode off on hunts.  He was an amateur scientist who spent time with scientists and was treated as a peer.  He would therefore likely bridle at Guy’s caustic dismissal of voracious readers and biologists.
 
"I put Cooper higher than you do," Roosevelt would write to the novelist Josephine Dodge Daskam when he was vice president of the United States. (Page 40)
 
"Cooper's alter ego, Natty Bumppo, firmly believed that the unecessary slaughter of wildlife was a crime against God." (Page 41) 
 
 
Teddy and his good friend and Audubon Society creator George Bird Grinnell founded the Boone and Crockett Club that was one of the first organizations to forward concepts like “fair chase” principles.  My sense is that both Roosevelt and Grinnell picked Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett as exemplars because they had some nostalgic connection to these flintlock and percussion era, iron-sight hunters who struck out into the wildest of wildernesses with a cherished firearm, skinning knife, tomahawk, possibles sack and not much more.  Roosevelt was also a fan of James Fennimore Cooper and read the Leatherstocking Series from start to finish.  Roosevelt’s fair chase ideals were probably influenced by this quintessential American writer who loved woodscraft artfully employed, felt forests were jewels and who abhorred wasteful killing without purpose. 
 
It is hard to imagine what this monumental man and former President—who loved science, championed land preservation, advocated for game laws and embraced Cooper—would think about virtually eliminating a species like the wolf from the lower 48 states in today’s context.  Particularly considering that his current library would now include works by Aldo Leopold, Olaus Murie and Harvard professor E.O. Wilson as well as articles indicating that elk were so abundant in some areas that they were displacing his beloved birds–particularly in areas where cattle were grazed or climate change impacts were present or simulated (1,2,3,4) .
 
Likewise, I doubt that this man who championed fair chase (i.e., in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals) would support the gadget-rich, engine-dependent and scope-driven type of trophy hunting advocated by the editorial staff at Eastman’s publications or their myriad advertisers.  (And to those who might defensively say that their guided and catered trophy hunts on private ranches are just like those that Teddy experienced, I would suggest that they read Candice Mallard’s excellent book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and think again.)
 
I have gone on too long when my main points were simply that Guy Eastman’s blog post and his interview are intellectually and factually challenged.  My advice to Guy would be to take some time to read about Roosevelt before claiming ownership of his allegiance and also dig into some tomes by or about Leopold (1,2,3), Murie (1), Wilson (1) and Cooper (1,2) before rambling on about super predators, ecosystems or the underlying philosophies of our precious avocation.   He might just be surprised by what he finds and the exercise would certainly improve his writing in terms of tone, content and maturity.  It would likely also help with the some members of the hunting public’s impression of Guy and his publications.  
 
I will close by saying that the paranoid part of me reacts when I read illogical and uninformed drivel like what Guy is shoveling or what we read coming out of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and others who are dependent on ranching, timber and energy interests for access to hunting lands, moneyed clientele for trophy hunts or cold-cash for donations.  My sense is that these associations come with significant blinders that prevent entities from seeing or speaking out about the wildlife impacts of these commercial activities.  I suspect too that the associations generate a certain amount of obligate empathy that calls for endorsement of actions such as predator control, timber harvests in excess of ecological need and road building.  Maybe this was why Teddy was really spinning?

 

Apr17

Of Hobbits, Elves, Elk, Ecology and Wolves

 

By Bob Ferris

My wife and I are fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  For us that meant that we recently re-watched the extended versions of the three movies and also spent time watching the special features disc associated with each film.  The former was still great and the latter was revealing in so many ways.  One of the things we learned on the special features disc was how some of the special effects were accomplished both during shooting and with post-production wizardry.  Pretty cool stuff.
 
One interesting element of this was how they were able to deal with the size differences between the smaller hobbits and dwarfs and the larger humans and elves.  Once you understand that “little people” actors in prosthetics were used in the wider shots containing both big and small characters it really changed your perspective.  You actually could start to identify the various small actors who served as costumed and masked doubles in these scenes by their gait and movements.  Once you gained this knowledge and knew what to look for it was easy to spot the cinematic sleight of hand when it was employed.  It did not take anything away from the movie experience in fact it really seemed to enhance it.  
 
This whole episode got me thinking about wolves and why what is so obvious to those who have had ecological and biological training just may not be that accessible to others without the same grounding.  Maybe we need a “special features” disc for the wolves?  But what would be on that disc?  What is missing from the anti-wolf crowds understanding of the bigger picture?
 
To begin to understand what should be on the disc, perhaps we should visit the most notorious example cited by anti-wolf parties and trophy hunters—the Northern Yellowstone elk herd crash.  For the last couple of years all we have heard from the David Allens, Bob Fannings and Don Peays of the world are how wolves were released and immediately decimated this famous and very visible elk herd.  It is almost like these anti-wolf advocates had their own “remember the Alamo” moment.  But we need to inject a little of the late Paul Harvey here and start to look at the rest of the story.
 
That examination begins with looking at the long term elk population trends in Yellowstone’s northern range.  Important milestone events to remember to help make sense of this are that wolves were basically gone from the system by the mid-1920s, Park staff culled elk herds until 1968 when hands-off or ecological management became the rule, the massive Yellowstone fire happened in 1988, and wolves were first re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995.  
 
Bearing all of this in mind, here is what would likely make the short list for inclusion on “Special Features Menu” for the Northern Yellowstone elk herd or subpopulations like the Gallatin:
 
"Elk summer-fall use declined after fire, then increased to levels nearly three times the level of the control before dropping back at the end of the 20-year period. Elk winter-spring use was higher than the control throughout the entire evaluation period, with the highest recorded post-fire use 7 years after fire." Effects of Fire in the Northern Great Plains
 
Post-fire Plant Succession: The Yellowstone fire of 1988 swept through the Park with a myriad of consequences.  One of the most important ones for elk was that the fire opened up habitats and enabled an explosion of new plant growth which enabled the elk population to grow rapidly.  As plant succession—the natural progression from the softer, more nutritious pioneer plants to woody plants—progressed the amount and quality of food in the Northern Range available to elk diminished.
 
Availability of Water: Water is a huge driver for elk as it has a consequential impact on the quantity and quality of vegetation.  When precipitation is plentiful elk populations tend to grow and they decline in droughts. [1]
 
 
Competition with Bison and Other Species:  Elk tend to displace deer but are in turn displaced by bison in Yellowstone and domestic cattle in other places where grazing is allowed.  Bison populations have risen considerably over the past several decades ergo competition is likely another factor to consider. [1,2]
Grizzly Bears and Predators:  Grizzly bears also prey on elk—particularly elk calves.  Grizzly populations in Yellowstone have increased considerably over the last several decades.  This puts additional pressure on the elk.
 
Disease: Disease also can be a factor in populations particularly those that are at or above the long-term carrying capacity of the area and in the absence of selective pressures like predation.  Diseases spread faster when populations are dense, which is one of the reasons that feeding wildlife is generally a bad idea. [1,2,3]
 
Density Dependence: Density dependence is less a cause than and observation.  There is a general tendency in populations that become dense to “self-edit” at some point and it is likely caused by any one of these factors or a complex combination of them. [1]
 
Secondary Plant Compounds:  One of the most interesting areas of botany is looking at secondary plant compounds and how those plant produced chemicals often regulate the populations of animals that consume them.  While we often think in terms of grazing critters determining vegetation there is a large body of evidence that in many cases it is the other way around. [1,2,3]
 
“Additive and compensatory are the two types of mortality that occur in mule deer populations. An increase in one cause of mortality or the introduction of a new type of mortality may or may not increase the total number of animals that die, depending on whether that mortality is additive or compensatory. If the increase or introduction of mortality increases the number of deer that die, the mortality is additive. If it is compensated for by reductions in other types of mortality, and therefore doesn’t change the total number of deer that die, then it is compensatory.”  From Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies website.
 
Additive versus Compensatory Predation:  If a certain amount of prey species did not die each year through natural or artificial means, prey would quickly over populate their habitats with disastrous consequences.  Because many wildlife agencies tend to want prey populations to exist at or near their carrying capacities this question of whether or not predation is compensatory or additive comes into play.  One recent study looking at nearly 2800 radio collared elk in 45 areas, found that additive predation from all predators including wolves was less than 2%.
 
“Wolves are coursing predators that chase prey over long distances in open habitat and have a relatively low success rate, selecting substandard prey. The success rate on elk is 20 percent.”  Notes on a talk by Dr. Dennis Murray University of Idaho on Western Hunter
 
Genetic Impacts: People shooting elk and wolves killing elk have different genetic implications.  Hunters kill elk in the fall when the animals are fat after summer feeding.  Wolf predation peaks in late winter and early spring when less biologically fit animals are at their most challenged [reference].  The former action has limited beneficial impact on the gene pool of elk because the selective pressures are only chance and size.  In contrast, wolves chase animals and are most successful with those unable to escape or resist.  While humans might not be able to differentiate between genetically robust individuals by sight it is believed that coursing predators such as wolves that chase their normally faster prey do so mechanically.
 
Pollution:  Pollution from pesticides and herbicides are likely on the low side directly in Yellowstone but that is not true in the surrounding federal forests where the migratory elements of this herd frequent.  Many people including citizen scientist Judy Hoy have been expressing concerns about some of these pollution effects and hopefully this is an area that will receive broader research attention in the future.  
 
Actually the above is not really a menu per se, because all of these factors and more are all in play in the Northern Range and other locales where elk are declining and where they are increasing in the presence of wolves.  
 

Thinking that wolves are completely driving the elk population decline in Yellowstone’s Northern elk herd is a lot like thinking that actor Elijah Wood is only three feet tall because he appeared to be that height in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I would urge those who still adhere to the yard-tall thespian hypothesis to take a deep breath, employ some commonsense and dig a little deeper into the situation. I think that you will find that many wonderful things are going on and that wolves are only supporting players in this drama wholly undeserving of this deep hatred we observe and the wholesale slaughter heaped on this still recovering species.

Mar01

The Sacred Cows Return to the Public Trough…Again and Again

by Bob Ferris
 
Cattle Grazing Helps Maintain The Land:
• Grazing minimizes non-native plant growth;
• Grazing reduces wildfire risk by decreasing flammable material on the land;
• Grazing contributes to soil stabilization;
• Grazing promotes grass tilling, plant reproduction, and healthy plant communities.  Oregon Cattlemen’s Association website
 
Proof that there are at least some who actually believe claims like the above made by the livestock industry—in spite of a huge body of contradictory science—comes from companion bills recently introduced in the House and Senate.   
 
(c) Terms; Conditions.—The terms and conditions (except the termination date) contained in an expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease described in subsection (b) shall continue in effect under a renewed or reissued permit or lease until the date on which the Secretary concerned completes the processing of the renewed or reissued permit or lease that is the subject of the expired, transferred, or waived permit or lease, in compliance with each applicable law. From H.R. 657
 
The House bill introduced by Tea Party favorite Raul Labrador (R-ID)—H.R. 657 or the Grazing Improvement Act—extends the length of grazing leases from 10 years to 20, acts to exclude the public from the permitting process, and lets expired leases continue in the absence of action by the involved agencies.  Congressman Labrador’s lifetime League of Conservation voters score is 7%.
 
The parallel bill in the Senate—S. 258—was introduced by Senator Barrasso (R-WY).  If that name rings a bell it might be because this was the Senator who backed the terrible wilderness bill that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation first endorsed and then—once their membership rebelled—opposed because it was so bad for elk.  The Senator, who is also an MD, is pushing for LNG export which would require fracking in the intermountain states which is not a positive development for wildlife either.  Senator Barrasso’s lifetime LCV score is 13%.  
 
"Livestock grazing is the most damaging use of public land."
- Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior
 
These bills are so contrary to the interests of the American public and wildlife that they are almost painful.  Let’s start with climate change.  Science is telling us that we have to take drastic steps to ameliorate our current greenhouse gas contributions and mitigate our past actions.  One set of options for that involves lowering methane-leaking livestock numbers on public lands and also taking steps to allow cattle and sheep-hammered habitats to recover.  This set of bills greatly reduces our abilities to undertake these needed actions.  Why when we know that we need flexibility and creativity do we want to lock ourselves in deeper and tighter to a system that has already proven itself broken?
 
The economics and social equity arguments are also a little twisted too.  Why at a time when we are pinching pennies and cutting social programs for the economically challenged are we making it easier for a very small class of citizens to undertake an activity which costs us hundreds of millions more than we receive in fees not counting the impact of below market fees and the not insignificant ecological damage our public lands and resources suffer?  Why would we want to do all this for an industry whose relative contribution to the economy—even in rural areas—is diminishing?
 
The economics on this deserve examination.  First we know that the entire cattle industry in the US produces about $60 billion in revenue annually in a $14 trillion dollar economy.  As only 2% of beef is produced on federal public lands we are talking somewhere in the vicinity of $1.2 billion dollars for which the US tax payer pays around $124 million in cash outlay.  I know a lot of us would love to get that kind of return on our investment but these figures do not include the associated damages to water quality, wildlife and ecological services as well as predator control costs and revenues lost via below market grazing fees which have been estimated to be as high as $500 million to $1 billion annually.  Given this, public lands grazing in the West starts looking more and more like the “bridge to nowhere” or the $700 toilet seat.  
 
The automatic lease extension is also interesting, because commercial leases (unlike residential leases) normally do not have clauses that allow them to extend or convert to month-to-month arrangements upon expiration.  So in addition to pumping way too much money into this anachronistic undertaking we would be granting them additional privileges that none of the rest of us enjoy.   Again, why?
 
Images and associations are important in all of this and one that sticks with me is a campaign picture from Senator Barrasso’s flicker account.  It shows the candidate at a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation event.  He is talking with Kevin Hurley with the Wild Sheep Foundation at the Cody, Wyoming.  What strikes me about this photo is not the candidate or Mr. Hurley, it is the fact that the elk is out of focus and overshadowed by an image of a cowboy.  Whether purposeful or accidental the fact that the elk is fuzzy and secondary to a romantic image of the livestock industry at a RMEF function is metaphoric of the problem that trophy hunting organizations suffer when they try to serve two masters and end up compromising their apparent missions.  Most of the rest of us see the right course here and that is to contact our representatives and senators and ask them to oppose this ecologically and economically indefensible legislation.  Please join us in this and future actions to bring reform to this antiquated and unfairly administered program.  Follow this link to contact elected officials.

 

Jul30

Let’s Talk of Wolves and Cattle but Please Include Elk, Deer, Fish, and Birds Too.

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.

Cattle grazing (US FWS)

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.

 

Jul17

Muries Rebuke Elk Foundation over Anti-Wolf Remarks

Olaus Murie (r) and Aldo Leopold (l) at Wildlife Society Meeting

The Muries—much like the Leopolds—are part of the conservation community’s royalty.  They shined individually and were an awesome force collectively—and they still are.  They have also been on my mind a lot of late.

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

They came to mind first as I wrestled with the irony of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation being so anti-wolf and yet honoring Olaus Murie who while clearly the father of modern elk management was also one of the pioneers when it came to predator appreciation and understanding.  For me—a proud owner of a well-thumbed copy of Olaus Murie’s A Field Guide to Animal Tracks—the cognitive dissonance caused by this happenstance was profound and irreconcilable.  

Adolph and Louise Murie

 
And now they are on my mind because they too are bothered by the above.  And just as the first generation of Muries—Olaus, Mardy, Adolph, and Louise—did in such precious places as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Grand Teton National Park, and Denali National Park, the remaining second and third generations are standing up for the wolf and sound science.  
 
So what did they do?  Donald Murie—Olaus and Mardy Murie’s son—recently wrote a strong letter (click here to see) to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation asking them to both stick to the science and change the direction of their comments regarding wolves or stop using the Murie name in association with the award and their programing.  This is a pretty straight-forward request driven by a growing frustration with the indefensible, anti-wolf rhetoric coming out of RMEF.  
 
The letter was sent to all the board members of the RMEF as well as the leaders of the major conservation organizations—many of which honored members of the Murie family with awards including:
 
The Wildlife Society’s Aldo Leopold Memorial Award Medal (Olaus)
Pugsley Medal (Olaus)
Audubon Medal (Olaus)
Sierra Club John Muir Award (Olaus)
Audubon Medal (Mardy)
Sierra Club John Muir Award (Mardy)
The National Wildlife Federation J.N. Ding Darling Conservationist of the Year Award (Mardy)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (Mardy)
John Burroughs Medal (Adolph)
 
On some level I suspect that this will be viewed as a harsh condemnation of RMEF as a conservation organization.  For my part, I hope it is viewed both as a community-wide intervention and an invitation.  I hope the elk foundation understands the seriousness of this action and owns up to their 
missteps.  But to move forward and accept the “invitation” element of the action they have to make serious changes in leadership and philosophies.  If they can do it, there are plenty of us who would welcome an opportunity to work with them again in the spirit of cooperation and sound conservation science.  It is really their choice.
 
Bob Ferris
Executive Director 
Cascadia Wildlands

 

Jun06

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation–Needed: Less 10 Gallon Hats and More 10 Pound Brains

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.

Bob Ferris

Executive Director 

Cascadia Wildlands

 

P.S. Please sign the Aflac petition and ask them to stop supporting this type of biological bigotry.  Thank you.

 

Additional Supporting Literature:

With Elk and Wolves Someone is Fibbing Todd Wilkinson 2012

The Truth About Wolves is Hard to Find Christina Nealson 2012

Undetected species losses, food webs, and ecological baselines: a cautionary tale from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, USA Joel Berger 2008

Linking wolves and plants: Aldo Leopold on trophic cascades. William Ripple and Robert Beschta. 2005

 

 

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