A major problem with hunting today is that hunters are a mysterious minority group that the vast majority of Americans have had little first-hand contact with, let alone through mainstream media. That makes hunters, regardless of whether they are ethical or not, an easy target for anti-hunters to stigmatize, and for the media to misinterpret.
A case in point is an article in the December 1 New York Times titled “Utah Hunters Criticize Market Approach to Licenses and Conservation”. The article is about the rising cost of resident and non-resident hunting licenses, and how people with enough money can buy licenses that others could not afford. In that article there is a quote by David Allen, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF).
“Money has definitely infiltrated our American hunting system. Some of it’s ethical and legal and aboveboard. But is it all good? Maybe, maybe not,” Allen is quoted as saying.
“I spoke with that reporter for almost for almost an hour and a half,” Allen told me. “I think she missed the point. What I was telling her is really two major points. The first is that while conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation can help state agencies support some programs, state fish and game agencies are ultimately dependent on fishing and hunting license revenues to keep afloat, which in these cash-strapped times is getting increasing more difficult. A lot of state agencies right now have their own financial cliffs. Montana and Idaho state wildlife agencies are both saying they have 12-24 months before they hit their cliffs. Wyoming Game and Fish says they need $8-$10 million cash right now. Other states are in the same boat. Without hunting, we would lose our entire wildlife system. Sure, they can try raising fees, but hunters and fishermen are ultimately customers to these agencies, and you always want to keep the customer satisfied. You won’t save hunting by selling a few high-price tags. You save it with a widespread group of hunters and anglers, buying licenses and spending money in communities all across the US.
“The second point I wanted to make is that there are two kinds of ‘tags’ that are sold at higher prices. The first are ‘conservation tags,’ and the money from those go directly to agencies to support conservation programs. The second are ‘convention tags’ like those sold at the Utah expo conventions. Wildlife is a public trust. What I told her was that there needs to be accountability about the money from those tags. Where does the money go? Even if it is spent in appropriate ways, there needs to be transparency so there is no room for suspicion.”
David Allen grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A lifelong hunter, Allen is the kind of person that likes to make things happen. His first career position was handling media relations for the Pro Rodeo Association. From that he moved to Wrangler Jeans, where he became Director of Special Events, which included producing country music concerts. Wrangler Jeans was the first primary sponsor of NASCAR race driver legend Dale Earnhardt. David was with Dale Earnhardt from 1980 to Earnhardt’s tragic death in 2001.
In 2003, David joined the Board of Directors of the RMEF. Four years later, David Allen became the President and CEO. To make his point about transparency, he called attention to RMEF’s approach. Charity Navigator gives RMEF a score of 65.26 out of 70 possible points. Almost 90% of their annual income is spent on projects.
Elk recovery: successes and setbacks
The story of elk recovery, in which the RMEF played a critical role, would make Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold very proud. When the Mayflower landed there may have been as many as 10 million elk in the US, which had the largest range of any deer species in North America. By 1907, due to market hunting and loss of habitat, the elk or “wapiti” (Native American word meaning “white rump”), the national population had plummeted to 41,000.
Thanks to the conservation movement, by 1975 the elk herd had climbed back to half a million. A good start, but in 1984 the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was launched to restore the elk herd nationwide, with hunting being a key to sustainable wildlife management. Since then the elk herd in the US has doubled again to over one million, and the RMEF has been a factor in raising money to support that expansion, which has included transplanting elk into five more states. The future seems positive, but in addition to the tenuous state of funding for state wildlife agencies, there are some other obstacles to deal with. One very important one is wolves, who seem to place elk high on their menu.
There were wolves living in the northern Rockies prior to 1995, but not many. A program was launched by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in cooperation with the US National Park Service to catch and relocate 66 wolves from Canada into the Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. The goal was to establish 100 wolves with at least 10 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Despite the federal government’s program killing wolves that prey on livestock and recently-introduced hunting seasons, the wolf population in the northern Rockies is at least 2,000 animals today, and some believe twice that many. Elk herds in many areas have plummeted as a result of the wolves. Along with the declining number of elk has come declining license sales and downturns in money spent by hunters in communities in elk country.
Wolves were delisted in 2011, and their population remains far above the original goals. However, environmental groups including Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity maintain that the states should not be allowing the hunting and trapping of wolves.
“The environmental groups are not focused on ecology. Wolves are their ‘cash cow.’ These groups say that the wolf populations should be allowed to keep growing even though renowned experts like Dr. David Mech, perhaps the foremost authority on wolves in the world, says that the wolf populations in the northern Rockies were adequately recovered by 2000,” says Allen. “These groups keep moving the goal line because it’s profitable for them to sell ‘saving the wolves’ to their members. What I want to know is how this money to save wolves is being spent. We publish our audited financials at the end of each year so we are transparent. We make those 100% available to the public. How do these pro-wolf groups spend their money? We should see an audited trail of money in and money out on how their money is used to defend wolves.”
Two lawsuits have recently been filed by environmental and animal rights groups challenging Wyoming’s wolf management program. In one, the major plaintiff groups state their membership numbers as a way to support their position. Defenders of Wildlife has 385,173 members nationwide, but only 4,312 in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The NRDC has 363,778 members nationwide, but only 776 in Wyoming, 1,770 in Idaho, and 1,745 in Montana. The Sierra Club has 595,288 members nationwide, but only 891 in Wyoming, 2,214 in Idaho, and 2,061 in Montana.
“I suspect that a number of those folks belong to all four,” Allen observes. “As for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, our membership is about 193,000. In Idaho we have 6,756 members. There are 9,015 REMF members in Wyoming and 12,414 in Montana. Our policy is really to represent our members. They are like shareholders. And we have donated over $400,000 to support scientific research on wolves, providing data that we use to guide our policies on wolf management.”
“The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation does not want to eradicate wolves and we have never stated such,” Allen went on to say. “We believe they should be managed in keeping with ecological and social considerations, and our membership supports this. This idea of some ‘ideal balance of nature’ with the return of all predators to numbers of hundreds of years ago these environmental groups are peddling is like a Walt Disney movie. You cannot restore the wolf population to the levels it once was because there are 300 million people they have to co-exist with. The same is true for bears, mountain lions and coyotes, as well as elk, deer, and so forth. You can’t go back to the past. You cannot replace hunters with predators to keep wildlife populations sustainable.”
Looking to the future of conservation
The predator issues strike a sobering chord with Allen.
“Our North American Wildlife Model of Wildlife Conservation is a model for the world. And the North American Model of Wildlife Management is in jeopardy,” he added. “The Fish and Wildlife Service says their goal is to turn over all management of wolves to the states by 2014. The hunters and anglers sustain the state system now, and state agencies are already in financial trouble. We cannot manage wildlife as if the United States is a large national park. Already predator management is placing a burden on the states, and their populations are growing and spreading.”
Under Allen’s leadership, the RMEF recently passed 6.1 million acres in habitat conserved or enhanced for elk and other wildlife. Problem is that we are losing elk habitat at the rate of 4-5,000 acres a day, Allen says.
Allen admits that right now the hunting-conservation groups are fighting a defensive battle.
“The sportsmen’s groups do not cooperate with each other like the anti-hunting groups,” he says. “We must stop being afraid to tell the story of how hunting and conservation are essential. We have to make our case.”
Allen’s background in media is part of his strategy. To see one example of how Allen is walking his talk, see the RMEF video, “Hunting is Conservation”, embedded below.
Images courtesy RMEF