The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and two pro-wolf groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Western Wildlife Conservancy, are accusing each other of attempting to take advantage of the increasing conflict over wolves in the northern Rockies.
In a series of op-ed articles, news releases and letters, the organizations accuse each other of mischaracterizing wolves' impact on elk populations since the wolf reintroduction.
In the most recent letter, RMEF president and CEO David Allen said the two groups and others challenging the decision to delist the grey wolf in Montana are party to what may become "one of the worst wildlife management disasters since the destruction of bison herds in the 19th century."
Mike Leahy, director of the Defenders of Wildlife's Rocky Mountain Region, and Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, said in a letter that those two organizations do not oppose sustainable hunting practices.
"Responsible hunters are some of the most knowledgeable wildlife conservationists and we seek and find common ground with them regularly," the pair's letter read.
The controversy between the organizations flared earlier this year after the pro-wolf groups used information from the RMEF to suggest that elk herds were faring well despite restored wolf populations in op-ed articles and testimony before Utah lawmakers.
Allen said the groups "cherry-picked" information from the RMEF website and magazine that shows elk populations are expanding in the Northern Rockies. What the groups didn't offer was information showing that in places where elk share habitat with wolves, some elk populations are declining rapidly, Allen said.
For instance, Allen said the Northern Yellowstone elk herd has gone from 19,000 elk in 1995 before the introduction of wolves to just over 6,000 in 2008. Yellowstone's Madison Firehole herd fell from 700 to 108. And the Gallatin Canyon elk herd between Bozeman and Big Sky dropped from 1,048 to 338 in the same time period.
"This is not a secret that we've uncovered," Allen said. "This is something that everyone, including the Defenders of Wildlife, definitely knows about. Where is the outcry for the elk? There is none."
The irony of all of this is that sportsmen brought back the herds of elk and deer that now feeding the wolves, Allen said.
"They wouldn't have been able to do this wolf reintroduction if the sportsmen had not been successful in bringing back the herds of elk and deer," he said. "We were down to 10,000 elk in the entire country in 1900. It was sportsmen who brought the herds of elk and deer back from the brink.
"Pro-wolf groups like to cite statewide elk numbers because it glosses over the ongoing annihilation of local elk herds," said Allen. "They like to say that elk and wolves evolved together and would coexist now if man would just leave them alone, which completely ignores the fact that this is no longer the Old West and millions of us live here now.
"Habitat is shrinking at a rapid pace and the wildlife that lives here must be carefully managed," he said. " ... Right now this is simply a wolf amnesty program and the results are becoming alarming."
Allen said the groups attempting to overturn the ESA ruling are driven by an anti-hunting agenda.
"This isn't about rescuing wildlife," Allen said. "This is agenda-driven ... these are animal rights groups, not conservation organizations. They are attempting to take away the state's ability to manage its own wildlife for their own specific agenda."
In their letter, Leahy and Robinson said their organizations fully support wolf delisting and statement management "so long as the terms ensure a healthy and sustainable regional wolf population over the long term."
The current requirement of 100 to 150 wolves per state does not meet that threshold, particularly because the states may try to manage wolves down to those numbers over time, the two wrote.
"There is much hostility voiced by a select few toward wolves in the Northern Rockies states, including state legislatures, by some governors' offices and even apparently from other conservation groups," their letter read. "Strong, balanced, science-based federal and state plans are necessary to overcome this opposition to wolf recovery."
Robinson said Thursday the exchange between his organization and the RMEF needed to take place and wasn't necessarily complete.
His organization, Robinson said, focuses on taking an "ecological view where all species have a place. ... The challenge for all of us on this issue is what ecological role are we going to allow wolves to have."
Robinson said his organization isn't "anti-hunting at all," but it does have a different focus from other groups with an agrarian view of wildlife that puts one species over another.
Robinson said he believes the RMEF has become more radical under the direction of Allen and has moved away from its core principles.
"They have done a lot of good conservation and not only just for elk," Robinson said. "I would like to recognize that organizations that are pro-wolf are not necessarily anti-elk."
A coalition of 13 groups is seeking to overturn the federal decision to remove wolf populations in Montana and Idaho from federal Endangered Species Act protection.
The groups said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service erred when it delisted the wolf in the two states, but not Wyoming. They argued that wolves should be managed as a regional population, which shouldn't be divided by state lines. The groups said wolf population in the three states should be between 2,000 and 5,000.
At the end of 2009, there were about 1,700 documented wolves in the three-state area.
Federal and state wildlife managers said the numbers are far above the original ESA goal of 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs. They say wolf hunting seasons in both Montana and Idaho were successful last year.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy will hear oral arguments in June on the issue.
Ravalli Republic editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.