Four decades ago, four men had a wild idea that almost bankrupted them. But tenacity and faith helped that seed of an idea blossom into a colossus for elk conservation.
In 1984, four buddies from the tiny northwestern Montana logging and mining towns of Troy and Libby spotted a void in the wildlife conservation landscape.
Ducks, turkeys, bighorn sheep, whitetails, quail and trout all had groups of hardworking sportsmen and sportswomen laboring to ensure their future on this planet.
But no one focused on what these men felt was North America’s most inspiring species—elk. So brothers Bill and Bob Munson and friends Charlie Decker and Dan Bull grabbed the bull by the horns, so to speak.
In March 1984, they boldly decided to launch an organization they dubbed the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” says Charlie. “And we had no money, either.”
But fate proved to be on their side. Bob and Bill’s mother offered to lend them each $8,000 dollars, betting her sons could make good with it.
Charlie anted up as well to match Bill and Bob’s investment, in the process zeroing out his oldest son’s college savings. As one might expect, his wife Yvonne was less than thrilled. “It was a really bad economic time,” she says. “I knew was a great idea. But I was just not sure that we needed to involve our last $8,000 in the bank.”
“Darn near cost me a divorce,” jokes Charlie, who’s now been married to Yvonne for 62 years.
With $24,000 amassed, they hired a pair of consultants from Spokane, Washington, to help guide them on building a membership for an organization no one had ever heard of. Hitching their wagons to a 43,000-piece mailing to elk hunters, these optimistic advisors predicted a 5 to 10% return equating to 2,150 to 4,300 members.
To prepare for a flood of new memberships, Bob bid on an automatic letter opener at a U.S. Forest Service auction. But it sat silent as responses trickled in, and a feeling of panic began to wash over.
We ended up with 233 members,” Bob says. “And we were broke.”
This group of men who’d met in church wondered if their prayers were gaining any audience in the heavens above.
“We seriously talked about quitting,” Charlie says. “But I would have fought and lost everything I had before I’d tell somebody I took their money and couldn’t give it back. I just couldn’t do that.” Bob agrees.
“We owed a commitment to those 233 people that said, ‘hey, we’re expecting what you promised us in that brochure.’
The mailed pamphlet in question pledged to deliver a magazine of the likes that other critter groups sent to their members. So once again they rolled the dice, taking out a $25,000 line of credit to publish a magazine.
They reached out to Lance Schelvan for help. A graphic specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Libby, Lance got busy calling all the writers and photographers he knew. He himself took pen in hand to illustrate the magazine, while Bob kept up the phone calls, prodding every big game biologist he could find to write articles and every elk-related business to buy advertising.
Weatherby came through with a full-page, four-color ad for a whopping $500. While Lance and the others concentrated on filling up the rest of the magazine, the reality of printing costs sent their heads spinning. With a rough estimate from a Spokane printing company, Bill Munson asked his friend John Marmaduke for a $25,000 loan. On a wing and a prayer, John agreed.
But then the printer nearly doubled their bid to $48,000. Disheartened, Bob and Lance followed a suggestion from friends at Montana Magazine and found a perfect partner in Minnesota’s Hart Press. Despite any misgivings about this band of Montana greenhorns who’d emptied their own savings accounts, Hart’s Bob Blasing brought RMEF on as a new account at a much-reduced price quote. Lance quickly devoted himself to last-minute editing, laying out the magazine like a scrapbook artist to rush the new voice of a fledgling RMEF to press.
But it turned out Lance’s method of scotchtaping every picture, ad and column of type in place wasn’t a hit, and it wasn’t long before Blasing phoned, gently breaking the news that all that shiny tape was creating an incredible glare in the printing process, burning out letters, even words. Lance told him just to do his best.
A few weeks later, a truck rumbled into rural northwest Montana heavy with 35,000 copies of Bugle. The Munson brothers, Charlie Decker and John Marmaduke stood silently as they cracked open the premier issue. John studied what his $25,000 had wrought and finally spoke: “This’ll never sell.”
But they had to try. They began driving around to gas stations, supermarkets and sporting goods stores far and wide asking if they’d put a pile of Bugles next to cash registers and mail any proceeds back to RMEF headquarters, which at that point was a double-wide trailer in Troy that doubled as a real-estate office
Then Bob received a call from a magazine wholesaler who’d seen a copy of Bugle and wanted to know how fast they could get him 2,000 copies. It seemed their prayers had finally been answered.
“We got off the phone and high-fived for about five minutes,” Munson says. There turned out to be an untapped market for a magazine focused on elk and elk hunting. They ended up selling some 20,000 copies of that first issue through the wholesale network.
With wind finally at their backs, they turned to the next big task at hand— staging a convention.
Spokane or Bust
As the calendar turned over to 1985, Bob and Charlie rounded up every bit of help they could find to put together the first RMEF convention in Spokane. Money was tight to say the least, so volunteer labor was critical. They corralled friends, families, anyone who had a passion for elk and elk hunting.
“We weren’t selective,” Bob recalls. “If you had a pulse, you could have a job.”
Once in Spokane, trepidation over the scale of what they’d leapt into left them rattled. Bob recalls that more than once, he and Charlie stepped out of the convention hall to sit in their car with the motor running.
But a fast getaway never became necessary. They soon filled all their booth spaces even after a hotel employee convinced them to charge $75 a space instead of $25. Not one of the 3,000 guests registered a complaint.
omplaint. It also helped that their motley crew had managed to assemble the top four typical Boone & Crockett elk to be displayed at the convention for the first time in one place (see photo on opposite page), trucked in from Alberta, Colorado, Montana and Wyoming. With that as a prime attraction, they also convinced a world-renowned elk biologist, the late Jack Ward Thomas, and his counterpart Gary Wolfe, to speak. Noted bowhunter Larry D. Jones showed up to teach hunting skills, as did the late humor writer Patrick McManus, who lived in Spokane.
The first RMEF advisory committee gathered there too, made up of, as Bob says, “anyone with a big name in elk hunting circles.” Originally those names included Canadian outfitter Lyle Dorey, Montana publisher Dale Burk, Arizona hunting expert Mike Cupell and Outdoor Life Hunting Editor Jim Zumbo. That unexpected show of support helped strengthen Bob and Charlie’s faith in RMEF’s strong grassroots network, which soon began growing in every direction.
The Birth of Banquets
Taking another page from Ducks Unlimited and similar critter groups, Bob and Charlie began to recruit field staff to run RMEF fundraisers across the West—Big Game Banquets, as they became known.
At the first such event in Flagstaff, Arizona, a pewter casting of an elk literally lost its legs as the auctioneer held it up. As metal crumbled, leaving only scrawny wire supports beneath a big-bodied elk, the audience roared with laughter and the bidding took off. It was but the first of many surprises to come during RMEF auctions. At the Denver Elk Camp in 1986, RMEF held its first-ever convention auction. The auctioneer convinced one bidder he couldn’t do without a skunk-skin cap. The RMEF founders knew they’d hit a turning point as that bidder forked out $800 to don a dead skunk.
Other unusual items soon followed at RMEF convention and banquet auctions—old fire engines, vasectomies (an item which nearly pushed a “very pregnant” woman to violence when she lost the bidding war), beaver-skin brassieres, Labrador puppies (some proving to be not yet house-trained while on the laps of field directors, committee chairs and other dignitaries), pack mules (also not house trained)—and perhaps fitting among those examples, an outhouse was auctioned as well.
Forty years later, RMEF has held thousands of banquets, raised tens of millions of dollars for conservation, and its member ranks have grown from that first fearless 200 to more than 200,000 strong.
“By all standards, there shouldn’t be a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation unless there was some divine intervention,” says Charlie. “It was just meant to happen. Deep down in my heart, I just couldn’t quit. I knew it was the right thing to do. And we started something that will go down in history as making a difference.”