COLUMN: Elk lovers banding together for conservation

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Hunting is Conservation!

What a great motto. It is the motto of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a born-in-Montana nonprofit conservation organization with over 200,000 members. The Foundation is an action oriented, get-it-done group of hunter conservationists. RMEF illustrates the best of conservation.

When I went to forestry school at the University of Minnesota, the definition of conservation was, “The wise use of our natural resources.” Please note the word “use.”

Most natural resources such as wildlife are renewable. If properly husbanded, those types of natural resources can be enjoyed, harvested and used to sustain our way of life. Elk meat is tasty and 100 percent natural and organic. Wild elk populations can be managed to provide a never-ending supply of elk. Hunter conservationists have recovered a national elk population from only 41,000 in 1907 to over one million today. And along the way, hunters have harvested millions of elk.

Many nonhunting citizens find it difficult to understand how hunters can love elk and then go out and kill them. That truly seems to be a contradiction. The answer is very simple. Elk hunters will gladly fund the perpetuation of what they love to hunt. Data indicates that over 95 percent of Elk Foundation members hunt. These hunters love elk hunting so much that they will roll up their sleeves and dig into their wallets to do whatever is necessary to perpetuate elk hunting by increasing elk populations and enhancing elk habitat.  RMEF members put their money where their mouth is.

From its humble beginning in tiny Troy about 32 years ago, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has expanded to over 200,000 members in all 50 states and many foreign countries. In Montana, the Foundation has over 13,000 members, making it the largest sportsman organization and conservation group in Montana.  And it is not a do-nothing organization.

On a national basis, the RMEF has conserved over 6.7 million acres of key wildlife habitat. While elk habitat has been a key reason for those conservation efforts, hundreds of other non-game wildlife species have benefited from habitat enhancement.

In Montana, one of my favorite Foundation projects was in the Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown. The Snowy Mountains are almost 100 percent public land with great populations of elk. But the preponderance of ranch lands surrounding the Snowy Mountains is privately owned. Those private landowners blocked public access to public land. Some landowners wanted exclusive personal access to the great elk hunting on public land in the Snowy Mountains. Other ranchers leased their land to commercial outfitters who profited by having exclusive access to public elk on public land.

But as luck would have it, a local RMEF member discovered  40 acres of land for sale. That 40 acres had public road access and also bordered over 18,000 acres of Forest Service land in the Snowy Mountains. Both the Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have mandates to improve public access to public land. But those organizations usually move at glacial speed and are unable to quickly take advantage of public access opportunities.

To the rescue came the more nimble Elk Foundation. They quickly purchased the 40 acres for $190,000 for the 40 acres and re-sold it to Fish, Wildlife and Parks for $50,000. That equates to $10 per acre for permanent public access to 18,000 acres of great elk habitat.

While it was the hunting members of the Foundation who paid the bill, the new public access can be enjoyed by all 320 million Americans for hiking, camping and bird watching. This is true conservation work.

On Feb. 20, the Flathead Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will host its annual banquet. Next to being in the mountains hunting elk, attending this annual banquet is one of my favorite activities. Each year, this banquet is probably the largest gathering of hunters in Northwest Montana. I see some hunting friends just once a year at this annual banquet. So if you love hunting, love elk and want to do some meaningful conservation work, attend this banquet.  

Call Kim Wold at 406-257-9110 for reservations or more information. I’ll see you there.

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