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.

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Home is the southwestern foothills and mountains of Alberta. Born and raised here into a fishing and hunting heritage which morphed into a fascination with nature, a commitment to conservation, a home place on the Oldman River, and a career in landscape ecology. Still in love after forty years of marriage, and proud of the good people our three offspring have grown up to be. No less proud of, and grateful for, the friends and neighbours whose community spirit, stewardship ethics and good humour make this such a good place, and a good life. Worried about their future, which is why I can't stop working to keep my home place good. I write books and things too.

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