The Rickety Molehill Elk Federation

By Bob Ferris

We have admittedly been a little hard on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, but I am not sure that we feel any true guilt about it.   The feelings actually tend more towards sorrow and pity.  Sorrow in that a once prestigious and respected conservation organization has drifted towards the intellectual graveyard of a politically driven group with “elk” in their name.  And the pity comes from them not understanding the roots of their demise or a way out of this devastating vortex they now find themselves spinning within.  (Hint: It is not spending a lot of money on a glossy website redesign and hiring even more PR people with even less conservation grounding.)
Do you need examples?  The Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife is in the process of talking about managing elk to protect cattle from the bacterial disease brucellosis.  What?  Turns out hazing, separating, and killing bison that could be infected with the disease that causes abortions in cattle did not do the trick so now the ranchers—many of them public lands grazers—want the elk issue addressed.  Perhaps it is not enough that the American taxpayer already puts out $140 million dollars a year and incurs nearly three times that much in other economic and environmental damage including foregone grazing fees and wildlife damage on behalf of western cattle interests and now they want to reduce and cull elk?  The sad part of this is we see no real public posturing by RMEF on behalf of the very species they purport to protect.  Where are they arguing for the rights of wildlife—particularly to an agency (MDFW) funded in large part by wildlife interests—and standing up for the elk mentioned in their mission and name? (Hint: Advocating for supplemental feeding of elk is not a concrete action in this regard as feeding only concentrates elk which likely leads to even higher brucellosis infection rates.)
Perhaps—to give them the benefit of the doubt—they might be in tight and productive negotiations with the state and cattle ranchers and feel that any public statements would jeopardize their standing as honest brokers.  But that “benefit of the doubt” only goes so far because all of us in conservation have found ourselves in similar situations and have managed to simultaneously argue for our human and non-human constituencies and also participate productively and in the negotiations.  Perhaps this is just another case of the elk folks not knowing what is customary or allowable in these situations?
Other examples?  Sure. At the same time RMEF is pouring hundreds of thousands of donor dollars into wolf research in an effort to get to the “bottom” of the wolf issue and acting as interveners in partnership with the livestock industry, they are absolutely ignoring the issues of climate change and the impacts of grazing on the very species they purport to protect and advance.  And while Dale Earnhardt certainly has a following and his photoshopped picture wearing camouflage under his racing coveralls is mighty entertaining, Mr. Earnhardt is much more of a symbol for big, loud engines and the conspicuous fuel consumption that has driven the very climate change that is leading to depressed elk herds in various areas.  He is not the logical hero to drive the conservation of a species regardless of his national appeal.   
Irony is a form of utterance that postulates a double audience, consisting of one party that hearing shall hear & shall not understand, & another party that, when more is meant than meets the ear, is aware both of that more & of the outsiders' incomprehension.
By Fowler’s definition above, RMEF is an ironic organization with much of their membership viewing solely what they perceive as the good mission and performance of the organization.  In ignorance and with the outsider’s view they support and defend the group.  Then there are the rest of us who understand that supplemental feeding of elk, a wolf policy constructed of paranoia rather than science, substituting conservation credentials with star-power and deep alliances with the very economic interests that forestall balanced stewardship of our public lands and whose economic gains directly compete with the interests of wildlife are not at all consistent with elk conservation.  (Thus the irony.)
Another hint here about the RMEF catch phrase: Hunting is Conservation.  It is just not true.  Hunting is not always conservation regardless of how many times this mantra in repeated.  It is really more accurate to say conservation is conservation and many hunters are conservationists.  Shooting an elk with a rifle or bow does not automatically make you a conservationist anymore that killing one with a car or truck.  What makes someone a conservationist is materially engaging in conservation and embracing a conservation ethic like those espoused by Aldo Leopold, Ernest Thompson Seton or the Murie family.  Until RMEF takes steps to re-embrace its former ethic and reclaim its place as a legitimate conservation organization it will simply be as described in the title of this piece.