Elk group asks Bush to delist wolves

Bozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer


Bozeman, MT - There is one wolf for every 300,000 acres in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. And elk numbers are high enough that wildlife managers in Montana want hunters to be able to buy more tags.

Yet the influential president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation maintains wolves are "ubiquitous" and that "unprecedented" drought "has translated to malnourished elk herds incapable of producing healthy calves."

Those statements were made in a Tuesday letter to President George W. Bush from Jon Fossel, RMEF's president and former chief executive officer of the Oppenheimer Fund, which manages billions of investor dollars.

RMEF, a nationwide group based in Missoula that has helped preserve 3.7 million acres of elk habitat, has long had a reputation for sticking to science and habitat concerns while avoiding most controversial political issues.

One former RMEF employee and lifelong member said Thursday he is "embarrassed" by Fossel's letter and that the group should go back to what it does best.

"The Elk Foundation kept to the high ground and offered reason and truth to an issue otherwise clouded with hype, fear and misconceptions," former employee David Stalling wrote in a letter to Fossel. "It seems the Elk Foundation has changed course."

Fossel's letter, also signed by RMEF Chairman Thomas Baker, urges Bush to immediately delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

"The day for active, state-based management of wolves is here," the letter says.

Earlier this week, Interior Department officials said essentially the same thing. They downlisted wolves from an endangered status to threatened.

They said it will take about two years to complete the complicated legal and bureaucratic framework to fully delist the wolves, but that work must be done thoroughly if delisting is to stand up to legal challenges.

RMEF spokesman Steve Wagner Thursday said he is not familiar enough with the delisting process to say how it could be made to work more quickly.

He said the claim about a lack of healthy elk calves is based on a report from the Clearwater region of Idaho.

However, while Assistant Secretary of the Interior Craig Manson touted the eventual delisting as a "victory" for the Endangered Species Act and for conservation, Fossel maintained that leaving wolves on the list "mocks" the ability to recover "truly obscure species," like the Kirkland's warbler.

The letter advocates "science-based" wildlife management.

But Stalling noted that Fossel is taking a political approach by sidestepping scientists and writing to the president.

"That's not science," he said in an interview. "That's politics."

RMEF leaders are "trying to appease a very small number of people who don't base their opinions on science, people who don't like wolves and don't like the federal government," said Stalling, who helped write the group's original wolf position.

Ken Hamlin, an elk researcher for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Thursday that elk populations are above desired levels in 60 percent of the management units in the state. The numbers are high enough that FWP is asking the Legislature for permission to give hunters a second elk tag in some areas.

Hamlin said calf survival rates are down in many areas, some of which have wolves and some of which don't. He said drought likely plays a role in that, as does predation in some places, but so does the high number of elk.

There isn't enough research to spell out exactly how much each factor contributes he said.

But elk still produce healthy babies, he said.

"They're not incapable of producing healthy calves," he said.


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