Elk Group Takes Hit from Muries, Others

July 25, 2012

Jackson Hole News and Guide by Todd Wilkinson

By now, you may have heard about the flap between the Murie family and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Last week, foundation President David Allen said his organization was dropping Olaus J. Murie's name from one of its most coveted awards, an hon or given to prominent biologists whose life work has contributed to the scien tific understanding of elk.
The action came in response to a letter penned by Donald Murie, surviving son of Olaus and Mardy of Moose. Donald was troubled by re marks Allen's been making about wolves.
“Now, we find that your organization has declared all-out war against wolves; unreasonable, with no basis in science at all, wholly emotional, cruel and anathema to the entire Murie family,“ Donald wrote. “We cannot condone this. It is in total opposition to the findings of careful independent research by hundreds of scientists.“ He demanded that unless the foun dation changes its tenor, including calls for aggressive wolf control, it should cancel the Murie Award.
Allen opted to terminate the prize. More than a decade ago, long be fore Mr. Allen's arrival, the foundation received permission from the Murie family to put Olaus' name on a plaque. Murie is widely recognized as “the godfather of modern elk biology“ and an ecologist in the same league as Aldo Leopold.
It's an understatement to say it's a sad day. Over its 28-year history, the foundation has, nobly, been a leader in elk conservation, helping to protect 6 million acres of elk habitat.
Following decades of field research, Olaus Murie famously wrote, “Poison ing and trapping of so-called predators [wolves, coyotes, cougars, bears] … 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.“ Earlier this year, Allen, while speak ing at an anti-wolf rally in Oregon, re portedly made a statement published in the Bend Bulletin, that to keep wolf populations controlled, states “will have to hold hunts, shoot wolves from the air and gas their dens.“
Biologist and hunter Bob Ferris with Cascadia Wildlands brought Mr. Allen's comments to Donald Murie's attention.
He notes that the Rocky Moun tain Elk Foundation, under Allen, has backpedaled from its once-firm stance against the artificial feeding of public elk herds, a position supported by reams of scientific studies showing that feedgrounds (of the kind operated by the state of Wyoming and on the National Elk Refuge) are vectors for wildlife diseases, including brucellosis and perhaps all too soon chronic wasting disease.
The foundation board also has been reluctant to acknowledge that humancaused climate change poses a significant threat to wildlife due to changing habitat conditions. The organization is strikingly absent from “Beyond Seasons' End“ (BeyondSeasonsEnd. org), a report published by prominent hunting and fishing groups about the effects of climate change on wildlife persistence.
For example, a number of emerging studies suggest that drying conditions on crucial summer range in areas of Greater Yellowstone, Oregon and South Dakota are impacting elk nutrition and causing cow/ calf ratios to plummet in migratory elk herds. It can not be pinned on wolves.
Some very good people work for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, folks who understand, like Olaus J. Murie did, that natural systems are complex.
Hunter Bruce Smith, for decades the senior biologist on the National Elk Refuge and an original founder of the foundation's Jackson Hole chapter in the 1980s, is also befuddled.
“I agree with RMEF's mission to be an organization guided by science and to advance conservation while remaining apolitical,“ the “Where Elk Roam“ author says, “but in the last three years, that's changed. RMEF has strayed from being the group it once was.“
One prominent Murie Award winner resigned his membership over the foundation's positions. Also, read former foundation staffer David Stalling's critique of Allen online at TinyURL.com/c8fq42u.
“If their goal is to serve the best long-term interests of their membership, which means having healthy herds of elk and the ecosystems that support them, then RMEF ought to be standing behind those who champion competent science,“ says Steve Duerr, director of The Murie Center.
From Olaus and Adolph Murie to scientists who earned the Murie Award, Duerr says the honor gave the foundation credibility. But now, to wipe it from the records raises suspicions about the integrity of Allen as a conservation leader.
Todd Wilkinson's column appears here every week.