The public fight between the Murie family and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation demonstrates the difficulty of Idaho Fish and Game Chief Virgil Moore’s efforts to get wildlife advocates together.
The foundation pulled Olaus Murie’s name off its top conservation award earlier this month after his son Donald Murie asked them to stop its anti-wolf rhetoric.
Olaus and Adolph Murie were brother wildlife researchers and conservationists who had a profound impact on wild America. Olaus’ research on Rocky Mountain Elk and Adolph’s on wolves in Alaska laid a foundation on which modern wildlife biologists have built.
Along with Olaus’ wife Margaret known as Mardy, they also fought to preserve large tracts of the nation’s backcountry. Adolph played a critical role in keep Denali National Park largely roadless.
I visited Mardy several times at her Moose, Wyo. home. There she served home made cookies and generously hosted throngs of young environmentalists drawn by her inspirational leadership that continued until her death at 101 in 2003.
Olaus and Mardy spent their honeymoon in 1924 skiing through the Brooks Range and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge studying caribou. Olaus helped get protection for the area that still stands. Olaus was executive director of the Wilderness Society and pushed for passage of the Wilderness Act. He died first but Mardy watched President Johnson sign the bill in 1964.
So it made sense that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would name its highest conservation award after Olaus, especially because of the ground-breaking research he did in Jackson Hole and Yellowstone. The line between it and other mainstream environmental groups was all but non-existent.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, founded by four hunters from Troy Montana in 1984, has been a conservation group following in a tradition of sportsman-backed organizations going back to the Boone and Crockett Club of the 1880s. It had protected more than 6.1 million acres of habitat for elk and other species and reintroduced elk to seven states and Canadian provinces as far east as North Carolina.
It comfortably sat in the middle of the conservation world in the U.S. along side sportsman groups like Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League. It often joined groups like the Nature Conservancy in projects, staying out of controversial political fights.
That was until David Allen, a publicist for NASCAR, and pro rodeo organizations took over as president in 2007. The group had been criticized by some sportsman groups for cozying up to pro-wolf groups as the issue was becoming more and more polarized.
With many environmental groups fighting delisting, even as wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies ballooned to more than 1,500, Allen went on the rhetorical offensive.
He wrote that elk are not thriving where wolves are present. He said the reintroduction program, which environmentalists had called one of the great conservation successes of the 20th Century, was “perhaps one of the worst wildlife management disasters since the destruction of bison herds in the 19th century.”
He was also incorrectly quoted as calling for killing wolves from the air and gassing then in their dens. That prompted Donald Murie’s letter , saying the foundation now was “determined to exterminate” (wolves).
“The Murie name must not be associated with the unscientific and inhumane practices you are advancing,” he wrote.
Allen said in a telephone interview this week that the foundation’s policy is to keep all wildlife management under state-based programs. It is not calling for exterminating wolves.
“We certainly don’t have any disrespect for the Murie family,” Allen said. “We aren’t going to change our wolf policy.”
Whether you take Allen’s side or Murie’s, there is little room for compromise in this debate that is emotional and value-driven on both sides. It is exactly the kind of divide that Fish and Game’s Moore seeks to bridge with his statewide Wildlife Summit Aug 24-26.
Allen, and Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Clark could take the first step towards finding common ground but it is a task fraught with peril for both leaders. Perhaps they can find their common ground around the North American Model of Wildlife Management, which at its heart argues that wildlife is a public resource.
But some hunters’ groups are now calling this idea “socialist.” And many Defenders’ members reject hunting.
Still, if they and others can’t find common ground then the funding and support for future wildlife management may be a threatened species itself.