Tucked away just north of the I-90 at the foot of Grant Creek canyon on the outskirts of Missoula is the new headquarters of a homegrown conservation organization that has internationally protected and promoted the big game animal most identified with Montana – the Rocky Mountain Elk.
In 1984, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation began when four hunting buddies in a trailer in Troy, Mont. decided elk needed some protection and advocacy. Astonishingly, 22 years later, the Elk Foundation celebrated the grand opening of their $14 million, 70,000 square-foot International Headquarters, compete with office space for more than 100 employees, a volunteer support center and warehouse, and a jaw-dropping Visitor’s Center.
Given their humble beginnings, the Elk Foundation’s accomplishments are impressive. They have conserved or enhance 4.5 million acres of elk habitat and have a membership of 150,000 and are bolstered by over 11,000 active volunteers worldwide.
The new headquarters will better allow the Elk Foundation to meet their mission – to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat, said Valerie Delaney, director of international operations with the foundation.
The premise is really simple – when you benefit elk habitat, all other wildlife benefits.
But that habitat is being fragmented, developed and lost at the alarming rate of nearly 2,500 acres a day, according to Elk Foundation numbers.
“There’s a lot of work to be done and a lot of messaging that needs to get out there,” Delaney said.
The Visitor’s Center is a sort of ground zero for the Elk Foundation’s message. Greeting people at the front door is a massive, full-body taxidermy display of two bull elk engaged in battle.
This startling exhibit draws the visitor’s eyes immediately upward and you realize at once you are in a place uniquely western. Walls made of logs, decorated with rustic woodwork and stone give the large room a warm, intimate feeling.
To the right of the display is the education center that is comprised of multiple displays ranging from scientific explanations about elk and their habitat to simple hands-on exhibits geared toward young children and the curious at heart. To the left is the gift shop, small movie theater and beyond that the trophy room, where some of the largest elk ever killed in North America are on display.
Delaney moved deftly through the educational center, demonstrating the high-tech displays, one of which breaks down the Elk Foundations influence and membership on a state-by-state level.
“This map shows the historic range of elk in North America,” she said pointing to a large map in the floor. The map shows that elk once occupied a range from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific coast and all points in between, except for extreme southern states like Florida and Hawaii.
Still, it isn’t as if people in Hawaii and Florida aren’t active with the Elk Foundation, Delaney quickly proved. She stepped over the floor map to a large computer screen displaying the same map. “Pick a state,” she said.
“Hawaii,” I decided curiously.
She touched the screen and statistics showed for the state. Hawaii has no elk and no historic elk range, obviously. However, the Elk Foundation has 79 members on the island state and those members have raised several thousand dollars for the foundation’s mission.
What about Florida? Like Hawaii, the state will never be home to an elk, but still has over a thousand members, several chapters and has raised over a $1 million for the foundation’s mission.
Next to this interactive computer, is the centerpiece of the education center – a long, winding mural and taxidermy display, describing the diversity of elk country and how the other animals who are benefited with it are protected.
The hand-painted mural depicts a common Rocky Mountain habitat transition: grassland to riparian area and into a ponderosa pine forest. The painting is fronted by creatures such as ground squirrels, trout, fishers and bighorn sheep, not to mention a variety of shrubs, trees and grasses. Separating visitors from the display are several interactive panels explaining what each habitat type is and why it’s important.
The point of the display is to show people just how many animals are protected by caring for elk habitat, Delaney said.
Other displays in the center describe the principles of conservation, explain the role elk played in Native American life and show how important elk transplanting has been to the foundation’s efforts at re-establishing elk in historic habitat.
A Lewis and Clark display discuss ways the expedition utilized elk on their journey. Delaney, quick with facts, tells how the Corps of Discovery killed about 350 elk and that they found elk nearly the entire way west of the Mississippi.
But a most captivating display is tucked in behind the mural. Here visitor’s can learn about elk tracks, scat and calls. They can push a button and hear a mature elk bugle or a spike’s whining call. Push another one to hear a cow call to her calf or listen to her bark a warning. You can also hear the other sounds of elk country: running water, crunching sticks, and other wildlife.
And in a somber note, the exhibit also plays the sounds of elk country destruction. Press a button and hear a bulldozer plowing over another stretch of open space.
The plan was to put this display behind the mural so when the Visitor’s Center was full, people looking at the mural could hear all the sounds of elk and elk country, Delaney said.
The idea behind all the different displays was diversity. People all learn differently, so the Visitor’s Center is designed to meet a variety of educational needs. “We needed to tell our story in a bunch of different ways,” she said.
Delaney expects about 100,000 visitors at the center this year, making it a large draw for the Missoula area. The National Park Service has already designated the Visitor’s Center as an official learning site along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. The center will host a Lewis and Clark artifact display during the end of June for the celebration of the Corps of Discovery’s journey back across Montana.
And if the Visitor’s Center is the vital education arm of the Elk Foundation’s new headquarters, the volunteer service center is their crucial support base for the many volunteer activities held around the country each year. The massive warehouse just adjacent to the Visitor’s Center was paid for entirely by money raised by volunteers, said Mark Armstrong, public relations manager for the Elk Foundation.
The building belies a long-standing dependence the Elk Foundation has on determined individuals giving their time and energy to the mission. It is reflective of their beginnings.
“In 1984 I was one of the four most naive sportsmen on earth,” writes Elk Foundation co-founder and former president, Bob Munson, in a four-part narrative that ran in Elk Foundations’ flagship publication, Bugle Magazine, in 2004.
The articles told a story of four friends from the tiny town of Troy beginning the Elk Foundation with a lot of faith and little knowledge about what it took to run a conservation organization.
Besides Munson, the original founders were Charlie Decker, Bill Munson and Dan Bull. They started the Elk Foundation literally from the back of Bob’s real estate office, with $24,000, most of which was borrowed from Bill and Bob’s mother, Helen.
But elk was their shared passion and within four years the small operation had chapters around the West, a corporate partner in Anheuser-Busch and had made their first habitat purchase in the Ruby Mountains of Montana.
Through Munson’s story, one theme keeps rising to the surface – passionate volunteers carried the Elk Foundation.
“We are dependent on our donors and volunteers to accomplish our mission objectives,” J. Dart, president and CEO of the Elk Foundation, said in a press release about the dedication of the new headquarters. “We dedicate this magnificent facility and our successes to you. We could not have done it without you.”
The volunteer service center is home base for the Elk Foundation’s local banquets, which are held by the more the 550 chapters around the country each year to raise money for the mission and to raise awareness of the importance of elk country. The warehouse holds donated items for auctions and raffles, plus all the materials needed for the banquets and fundraisers.
The third part of the complex is the office space, which is connected to the back of the Visitor’s Center and currently holds 90 employees, Armstrong said. The remaining 50 Elk Foundation personnel are in the field, spread across the United States.
The entire complex will be paid for by the end of this year, Armstrong said with great pride.
Prior to the new facility, the Elk Foundation was housed in a rented office building in Missoula. Between rent, insurance and maintenance, the old building tapped the non-profit foundation for about $400,000 a year. That was money not going to protecting elk habitat, he said.
With the fundraising campaign for the new facility nearly complete, the Elk Foundation will soon have an asset on its books and that will allow the organization to dedicate more money on the ground toward its mission, Armstrong said. “It gives us the infrastructure to move forward,” he said.
And moving the Elk Foundation forward excites Jim Gladen, vice president of lands and conservation. Since 2000, the Elk Foundation has achieved some crucial goals, Gladen said. Including the completion of the five-year “Pass It On” campaign that generated nearly $298 million, protected or enhanced 1.8 million acres of elk habitat and shared the hunting and conservation heritage of the Elk Foundation with youth across the country.
Gladen now sees the Elk Foundation narrowing its focus and energy into four key areas: permanent land protection, land stewardship, conservation and hunting heritage, and elk restoration, he said. Land protection includes tools like conservation easements, land acquisitions and exchanges. “That’s been a strong component of what we do because if you don’t have the habitat there to start with, there’s not much else to say about it,” Gladen said.
But the Elk Foundation’s goal isn’t to own land, he said. Generally they acquire land and then transfer it to a public land management agency. This not only permanently protects habitat, but it generally increases public access.
Land stewardship means funding projects like prescribed burns, weed management and habitat restoration projects, Gladen said. These projects are often done with the help of Elk Foundation volunteers and that’s why it’s important that most of the money raised goes back to projects on the ground, he said. In fact, 89 percent of money spent by the Elk Foundation goes back toward fulfilling the their mission. That’s a very efficient track record compared to most conservation organizations, Armstrong said.
Elk restoration is still a priority, though with the rise of chronic wasting disease in big elk states like Wyoming and Colorado, it has lost some momentum, Gladen said. But over the past several years, the Elk Foundation has done several feasibility studies on re-establishing elk herds in states long void of any elk population. These studies have led to the reintroducing elk in four states: Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Conservation and hunter education continues to be the hallmark of a group largely comprised of hunters, Gladen said.
It only makes sense. Hunters have been at the center of all the conservation movements in North America. The hunter conservation model is not only an important part of the Elk Foundation’s hunting heritage, but it is also proven to be greatly effective in protecting habitat and wildlife.
The Elk Foundation sponsors programs for high schools clubs, hosts youth camps for young hunters and women in the outdoor seminars, all in an effort to further the conservation message and mission of the organization, Gladen said.
And even though the Elk Foundation has wildly surpassed the expectations of the founding member, there is still work to be done, he said.
“Where are those places that are still critical for permanent land protection?” asks Gladen. “We’re going to continue to find ways we can do more.”
For more information about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, contact their Missoula headquarters at 1-800-CALL ELK
~ Greg Lemon is a freelance journalist in Hamilton, Montana. When he’s not scrambling around the state following a story, Greg will likely be outside enjoying Montana’s fringe benefits. His work has also appeared in Montana Living, Bugle and Big Sky Journal.