Elk NetworkStanding Tall for Science

Conservation | January 1, 2016

Standing Tall for Science

by M David Allen, president and ceo

My oldest son just started driving. As many of us know, this can be a terrifying time for a parent. My wife and I keep reminding our friends to stay off the streets, and our son to keep his eyes on the road. Driving a car, though, is just one of many tasks in life where you need a clear vision of what lies before you. That’s certainly true with hunting. With our eyes, ears and nose we dissect the landscape before us in our search for game, wearing our necks ragged toting binoculars that pull the wild world closer. In a broader way, hunting here in North America depends on a clear view of the woods beyond what we can see. We hunters are the foot soldiers of a system that, at its very basis, requires a robust scientific understanding of what’s really going on with wildlife and their habitat.

From the start, the RMEF has worked hard to support the gathering of solid data to better manage our wildlife and wild country. In 1985 at the ripe age of one, RMEF contributed $450 to support the Northern Yellowstone Elk Study and $1,000 to help fund the Mount St. Helens Elk Study. The following year that number doubled to four research projects, then nine in 1987, including $20,000 toward the Western Cascades Elk Forage Seeding Study. No longer chump change.

Today we’ve funded almost 600 research projects across 32 states to the tune of $8 million. That’s small potatoes as compared to what that money has leveraged, though. RMEF’s investment spurred nearly $22 million in matching funds from our partners, for a total of almost $30 million for wildlife research.

But the RMEF’s commitment to research goes beyond cash. As Jack Ward Thomas, former Forest Service chief and co-founder of the Starkey Ungulate Ecology Project, points out on page 15, it was RMEF’s political support that was critical to the creation of Starkey, now the world’s foremost elk research facility.

“ gave me all the help I could have hoped for … I don’t know that we could have done it without them,” says Thomas. The research at Starkey has changed how we think about elk, elk habitat and hunting, time and time again. For decades it was a wide-held belief that elk lived and died by the quality of their winter range. But Starkey has shown that equally important in defining whether elk can survive a tough winter is the fat they are able to stockpile on their summer range. If a herd’s summer habitat is a dark and grassless forest on what was once open meadows, elk aren’t likely to enter the cold season in stellar shape. We’ve seen this on the west slope of the Cascades where some elk herds are in dire need of better summer range. Over the past 25 years, Starkey has produced more information about elk and elk hunting than any other single project. It’s but one example, though.

Take wolves. Lawsuits and accusations have swirled over the delisting, relisting and again delisting of Canis lupus as wolf populations have climbed steadily since they were reintroduced in 1995. Meanwhile, elk (and elk hunters) have struggled desperately in some areas. There has never been a greater need for accurate information about what’s actually happening out on the ground.

The RMEF has done its part to help even as some have accused us of being anti-wolf. In reality we’ve done more than practically any other wildlife conservation group to give professional wildlife managers the funds they need to understand and be better stewards of both wolves and elk. 

To date, RMEF has put upwards of $400,000 toward 37 wolf-related research projects across the country, led by some of the most widely respected biologists in the field. More than half of that amount came in the past five years, funding independent studies by universities, state, tribal and federal wildlife conservation agencies. If that doesn’t show a true commitment toward wildlife and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation—the system that has fostered the restoration of so many species—I’m not sure what does.

It also gets to the core of RMEF’s mission: to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage. That might mean mule deer on Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, or as Hannah Ryan makes clear in “Saving Sage Grouse (and Helping Elk, Too”) on page 88,  it might mean an animal that elk may hardly notice. Sage grouse are teetering on the edge of endangered species listing. Yet there is hope. An army of conservationists are using the best science to try to boost the fortunes of this bird that depends on the same country elk do. It’s yet another example of the many fronts where RMEF is working for wildlife.

Supporting wildlife research is something every RMEF member can take pride in. We have contributed to a tremendous body of knowledge about species that depend on us for their future. Thank you for helping.