This interview with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation President David Allen is the first in OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations.
Nearly 30 years ago, four hunters in northwest Montana met and pondered a question: why wasn’t there an organization dedicated to protecting the elk, one of North America’s grandest animals? The four men—a pastor, a realtor, a logger, and a drive-in owner—decided to take it upon themselves to form such an organization: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Now the RMEF stands as one of the largest and most respected conservation groups on the continent. Current RMEF President and CEO David Allen is the heir to a long legacy of protecting North America’s elk and elk habitat. He told me in an interview that in many ways, the organization has both vastly changed and stayed the same since its founding.
Earlier this year, the organization surpassed 200,000 members and 500 chapters—a far cry from its original brotherhood of 2,500 hunters back in 1984. Some things, however, never change. Since the organization began raising money for their first habitat project in 1985 (to fund a prescribed burn in Kootenai National Forest), the RMEF has been working diligently to preserve elk.
“What we’re doing today at RMEF is leaving something behind and giving something back,” David said at the outset of our conversation. “The RMEF has four main priorities. One is permanent land protection. The second is habitat enhancement and improvement. The third is hunting heritage and access to public land. The fourth is elk reintroduction programs.”
David grew up in a hunting family from the Black Hills of South Dakota. He said that the harvesting of an animal and preserving that right for future generations is part of the culture he was raised in. When not hunting elk in the rut, David can be found chasing after mule deer or turkeys in the spring. He insisted that he has a passion for elk not just because of what’s expected of him as the head of the RMEF, but because it gives him the greatest adrenaline rush he’s ever felt. Working to preserve the species for the future furnishes a similar feeling.
Although a lifelong hunter and conservationist, David said his journey to the helm of the RMEF happened in a roundabout way. He initially studied journalism at the University of Wyoming and embarked upon a marketing career with NASCAR and the Pro Bull Riders Tour. How David ended up working with the RMEF can be chalked up to serendipity.
“Richard Childress, who was a NASCAR team owner and one of my clients for about 25 years, is a major donor to the RMEF,” David explained. “One time he volunteered me to help the foundation with some marketing projects and that ended up with me on the Board of Directors, which led to my current position.”
Leading a major conservation group was a whole new ballgame for David and not without its own challenges, but he said that his training as a journalist made him stick to the facts.
“As CEO I wear a lot of hats,” David shared. “I guess I see my first and foremost responsibility is to our staff in terms of making sure that they have all the resources and support that they need to do their job properly. Then I get out of their way and let them do their jobs.”
David took over the RMEF in 2007, when the organization was struggling financially and losing members. His first goal was to stabilize the group’s finances and bring the RMEF back in line with its founders’ vision.
“This is our 30th year, starting in May,” David said. “The RMEF was founded by four elk hunters from Montana who had a vision of forming an advocacy group for big game and primarily elk. Somewhere along the lines, the organization’s senior management evolved and changed [to the point that] they got away from the hunter conservation model and got a little too far off into an environmental focus. That hurt the organization for a number of years and frankly caused a drop in membership and loss in revenue. Since then, we have purposely focused on bringing the organization back to the hunter-based conservation model. Our membership today is the largest it’s ever been, at 205,000. We have more resources and support than ever before, and I think that the organization is healthier than it’s ever been.”
David stated that he has a tremendous amount of respect for the RMEF’s founders—Bob Munson, Bill Munson, Dan Bull, and Charlie Decker—and directs the organization in line with their wishes. He knows two of the founders (Charlie and Bob) well, being that they are Honorary Directors of the RMEF.
“I make it a point to stay in close contact with them. I have a huge amount of respect for the blood, sweat, and tears that they put into the organization and I try to honor that.”
David said he already achieved one of his major goals with the RMEF, which was to turn the organization’s financial situation around and get the RMEF back on the front line of elk restoration. But his job isn’t done yet.
“I hope to lay down a foundation so that the organization never wanders back to that time,” he continued. “My other major goal is to continue to be more and more of a voice for the future of hunting as it is and as it relates to conservation. I want to connect to the younger demographic of hunters, young adults, and have them buy into the belief that hunting is conservation.”
You can watch a video from RMEF’s on why “Hunting is Conservation” below:
Perhaps the most telling of David’s successes at the RMEF is that this year, Charity Navigator awarded the organization its sixth consecutive four-star rating. The four-star rating is the highest available from the Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities based on their efficiency, transparency, and ethics. For every dollar sent into the RMEF, 90 cents go directly to its programs. For David and the RMEF’s staff, it makes all their hard work worthwhile.
“We’re very proud of it,” David said. “What makes me feel the best is that it is a major reflection of the work that our staff does. They show up and they do their job for the right reasons, and they’re focused. When we are recognized by organizations such as Charity Navigator, it makes me feel proud for our staff’s sake, and the work that they do.”
Although David has fond memories of NASCAR, he said that his work in conservation is entirely more satisfying.
“What we’re doing today at RMEF is leaving something behind and giving something back,” he repeated. “When you’re in a sport like NASCAR, everything is focused on the moment. It gets down to, ‘what have you done for me today?’ In the world of wildlife conservation, the question is ‘what have you done for the future?'”
Image courtesy David Allen