Jack, Jim and the jailing of the elk

In 1997 I pitched the idea of a book on elk, deer and other ungulates to Stephen Hutchings, my publisher at the time with the now defunct Altitude Books.  My stock must have been pretty high with him because he not only gave me a contract, but he included a travel budget so that I could interview experts across the west.  With that cheque in the bank, Gail and I bundled up the kids and camping gear  and headed off on a road trip that took us from Montana and Wyoming through Colorado and Utah and back.  It was a memorable experience, not least for the inspiring biologists and conservationists I got to meet.  I was actually a bit star-struck and terrified half the time, but I pulled it off.

Sadly, the book didn’t do well.  It came out as Altitude was crashing towards bankruptcy and both the production quality and marketing effort fell short.  But researching and writing it was wonderful.

In Missoula I met a very fine gentleman named Jim Posewitz who had been an inspiration to me ever since I’d been introduced to his book on hunting ethics, Beyond Fair Chase (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2707069-beyond-fair-chase).  I told him it should be mandatory reading for hunters and he assured me that, at least in Montana at the time, it was; a copy went to every newly licensed hunter.  Jim came across as a sensitive and deeply thoughtful man with a gentle sense of humour and a generous spirit. He had founded Orion, the Hunters Institute, to promote both ethical hunting standards and principled wildlife management.  He believed hunting should always bring out the best in both humans and our prey, not the worst; that hunting is not automatically synonymous with conservation, but that it should be.

When I mentioned that I would be interviewing Jack Ward Thomas the next day (at the time, arguably the leading authority on elk biology and management on the continent) Jim chuckled and told me:

“Jack Ward Thomas is the reason I got into this whole thing in the first place.  It was in 1985 at the North American Wildlife Congress in Boston, and he stood up in front of the whole conference of wildlife officials from across the country and floated the idea that we should start dealing with elk as a commodity in order to get more budgetary attention.  And not one person in the whole room stood up at a mike and seriously challenged that idea.

“That night I got up at 3 AM because I couldn’t get to sleep for thinking about how much this troubled me, and I opened a book I’d brought along — Speaking for Nature, by Paul Brooks — and started reading about how early American thinkers had debated ideas about public ownership and control of wildlife in the Boston Commons.  And here I was only three blocks from there in a motel.

“So later I wrote my first letter to Jack and I began by claiming a mutual friend “whose favourite way of tormenting me is to forward copies of your papers.” And he wrote back a very gracious letter acknowledging the legitimacy of my views and then went on to tell me that what I really needed to do was to get out on the stump and get more people to hear this.”

When I met Jack the following day, he was as gracious as Jim had described him.  He had a courtly, Texan collegiality but came across somewhat less humble than Jim had.  At that time he occupied a wildlife management chair endowed to the University of Montana by the Boone and Crockett Club.  His task, as he explained it to me, was to take on a few doctoral students each year and try to remediate their undergraduate training.  “We keep saying that wildlife management is 95% people and 5% biology but universities train biologists 95% biology and 5% people.  So I try to fix that.”  And based on some of the graduates he turned out, he did.

Unfortunately for North American elk, some of those who were in that conference audience back in 1985, the one both Jim and Jack had participated in, went back to their states and provinces and acted on Jack’s advice: they commodified elk.  Commercial elk farming exploded across the continent in the late twentieth century.  Not just for meat and velvet sales, but for the corrupt and degrading practice of “high fence hunting” —shooting captive-raised elk that had been bred and fed to produce big antlers.  It’s illegal in Alberta but you can buy a canned hunt in Saskatchewan and the bull you assassinate might well have been raised here and trucked across the provincial border just to feed your fantasy of being a real trophy hunter.  But you won’t be; you’ll just be someone who went to a wildlife brothel.  Game farming, and its resultant long-distance transport of elk, is directly responsible for the spread of chronic wasting disease across the continent — a disease for which there is no cure, that is always fatal, and has now spread into wild deer across most of Alberta.  Commodification of wildlife has been, and continues to be, a root cause of some of our greatest conservation disasters.

Fortunately for Montana, Jim went back from that conference with a renewed sense of mission.  It’s largely due to his advocacy, and the network of wildlife conservationists with whom he allied himself (including my good friend Dave Stalling who still lives in Missoula), that Montana remains free of elk farms and elk feeding stations.  They fought against the current and won.

Unfortunately for Montana, however, CWD spreads across state borders once it infects wild herds.  It’s arrived there now in spite of those who worked with such success to keep that state’s wildlife populations wild and healthy.

Jack Ward Thomas died in 2016.  Jim Posewitz died in 2020.  They were both conservation giants and I’m glad I got to meet them, however briefly. Their legacies live on but so, of course, do the conservation challenges that inspired — and sometimes confounded — them. They both did the best they could, and it was a lot.  But where commodification of wildlife is concerned, Jim was the one who was right. That’s because he always put principle ahead of pragmatism.

Which is why, of the two of them, he’s the one I would most hate to see forgotten.

Gratitude for 2021

Gratitude for 2021

I never saw a mammoth or the great herds of bison that sang across the ancient plains. I should have liked to have sat beside a campfire of mesquite and oak with Aldo Leopold and planned the next day’s search for whitetails and turkeys under a sky where the stars did not move. I would have liked to have exchanged letters with Anne Frank or seen the first sails appear over the Atlantic skyline while passenger pigeons passed overhead. We are granted only the years in which we live; those other years were for others.

Even in the years granted me, there are possibilities unrealized, things that didn’t happen. And that’s okay. My woulda-coulda-shoulda file is bursting at the seams. But every failure, loss and mistake is wrapped in a glowing aura of gratitude because I was alive to experience them. Love that ended was, nonetheless, love experienced. Before it flared out and was past, its brilliance filled my soul. Roads not ventured down nonetheless beckoned and their possibilities awoke imaginings that made me richer for having considered them. Even though I turned away. Mistakes and sins shame me when the black dog comes hunting, but at other times I remind myself that they were gifts that helped make me who I am; and that is someone at least marginally better today than the version who made those stumbles.

This is the time when we open a new calendar full of blank pages that will, soon enough, be filled in with the next moments of a life that flickered into being like magic, in one small corner of the vastness of an unimaginable Universe, on one brief segment of a ribbon of Time that extends back to — and forward to — Eternity. On the only small planet of which we know where there is a thing called Life that resists entropy, that expands, that changes and renews itself in ever more elaborate ways. Where lives like ours are even a possibility, in the echoing vastness of the cosmos.

So I look back at 2021 and it almost takes my breath away: I was alive during a pandemic and shared that story which, if nothing else, pulled us together in mutual experience and reminded us, in a humbling and maddening way, that we are biological organisms; part of Nature; subject to the phenomena that all species must submit to as part of the price of admission to this thing called life. I wasn’t given the chance to test my spirit against war — and the world has known horrible wars, wars fought with swords and poisonous gases and bombs — or to stand against the charge of great predators holding only a stone-tipped weapon, or to negotiate great treaties or persevere through profound tragedies. But I am here for covid. I’m grateful that. This one is ours to live — not to survive, but to live.

I was alive on a planet whose weather came unstuck, and I sweated through this year’s hot summer and huddled indoors rather than breathe the smoke pouring in across the Rockies from forests burning where my neighbours live. I was alive, so I could smell that smoke and feel that frustration and be angry and confounded by the failure of my generation to rise to the challenge of suppressing our energy hunger, our impulse to take more than this planet can afford. I was here. In all the vast sea of possibilities of time and space, I was here. In 2021. I was part of that story. Because I was alive, it was part of my story. It still is.

I watched a son marry, and welcomed a daughter into our family. I visited a grandson — another miracle emerging out of time and space — and saw how another son had enriched our family by the choices he has made and the family members he has embraced. I saved dozens of emails from a daughter who turns experience into laughter: first hers; then Gail’s and mine. Where does laughter come from? Who knows? But it erupted frequently in 2021, like a miracle. It is a miracle. Like life. So is sorrow, and there was some of that too.

Most nights in 2021 I fell asleep listening to the breathing of a living soul, mother of my children, keeper of my conscience, in the quiet of the night as the world turned slowly through the sky, pulling another sunrise out of the stillness, while our hearts pulsed blood through bodies that did not die. And so each morning I woke again into the possibilities and hopes of another day, shared with someone who chooses to link our stories so that they are almost one. And some of those days were good and some were awful, but they were gifts I had not earned and they were mine.

I might never have existed. The fact that I do is, to me, a miracle — a strange and inexplicable thing. I breathe in air that arose over far oceans and was carried to me by great clouds that sometimes spill lightning and rain, and sometimes blow down trees or chase fire across the land. I breathed out into that air, and my sighs became part of the world; part of other people’s breath, part of what keeps eagles aloft and trees whispering and grass pollinated. I ate food that was once living things and it came to life again in me. I ran and walked and spent rather too much time just sitting. But even sitting is living; sometimes while sitting I learned things that amazed me; other times I wrote things that found their way into other minds. We share pandemics, and weather, and air, and ideas.

And stories. What a story 2021 was. What stories — because we all live our own stories even if we blinked into existence on the same planet to share the same days. We are different but together. We should be breathless in amazement at the simple richness of that idea. Of that truth.

So I’m grateful for 2021. It was a year of living intensely, even if it was also a year of frustrations, setbacks, angst and annoyances. It was as unlikely as every other year we’ve ever lived, because they all were unlikely. We are given the times and the places we are given simply to be alive in, and the magic is simply that we are.

May we live no less intensely in 2022, whatever it might bring. Events are just events. The gift we are given is to live them, on this fecund planet, in shared experience with every other living thing. We are sensate. We are real. How utterly strange, when one really thinks about it. And we are together, with a whole new year stretching out ahead of us. Think of the possibilities!

A life isn’t many things and, too often, isn’t all we might have hoped for or could have accomplished. But it’s life. It renews itself until it doesn’t. I’m grateful for 2021 because I was given life to experience it. Many weren’t. I’m also grateful for the fact that my subscription hasn’t yet expired. Can’t wait to see what the next issue holds.

It was a very good year. And another one is coming. It will be a good one too because we will live it. And that is simply a gift beyond imagining.