Montana Association of Land Trusts

Private Land Conservation

Glenn Marx
Executive Director
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624

Conservation Conversations

Conservation Conversations is a 12-part series of interviews from the Montana Association of Land Trusts that seeks to present a deeper and broader understanding of private land conservation and the work of Montana’s land trusts. Each month in 2010, a leader within the Montana land trust community will voice their personal perspectives about the value private land conservation brings to Montana’s landscape, to the people of Montana and Montana’s economy. The interviews are conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number six in the series.

June 2010

Gary Wolfe Gary Wolfe

Texas native Gary Wolfe was raised in New Mexico and has lived in Montana the past 22 years, serving as executive director of The Vital Ground Foundation since October 2004. Gary is an avid hunter, angler and outdoorsman, and as a youth attained the rank of Eagle Scout. As a youth, he viewed a National Geographic television show about the Craighead brothers (John and Frank) working with grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, and knew then he wanted to be a wildlife biologist (John Craighead is an honorary Vital Ground board member). Gary went on to earn masters and doctorate degrees in wildlife biology from Colorado State University and worked as a park ranger at Mount Rainier and at Big Bend National Park before spending 12 years as wildlife biologist, hunting and fishing guide and ranch manager at the famed Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico. Gary joined a fledging conservation group named the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1986 and spent 15 years at RMEF, the final three (1998-2001) as President and CEO. He thought he had retired in 2001 but soon found himself contracting with agencies and organizations on natural resource projects, and in 2004 was recruited to serve as executive director of Vital Ground. Vital Ground was created in 1990 and its mission is to protect and restore North American grizzly bear populations by conserving wildlife habitat. Vital Ground is headquartered in historic Fort Missoula and is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2010. Vital Ground has helped conserve and enhance over 600,000 acres of grizzly bear habitat since the organization was founded.

Q: You spent more than a decade at the Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, working cattle and working with guests at the hunting and fishing resort. Did that help prepare you for your later work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Vital Ground Foundation?

A: Absolutely. It was really a great experience. I was just finishing up my masters degree in wildlife biology, and then I had a chance to work on a true working ranch. Vermejo Park was a working cattle ranch and a hunting and fishing resort, and working there gave me the opportunity in one job at one location to do many different things—fish and wildlife management, wildlife law enforcement, running a hunting and fishing outfitting business, guest relations, overseeing ranch operations, and even a little bit of cowboying!

Specifically, from the perspective of the next job after Vermejo at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Vermejo job was very helpful. When I went to work for the Elk Foundation it was in its infancy and had just a handful of members and chapters - maybe six or seven staff - so I was able to come into a small organization and bring diverse experience as a wildlife biologist (with a PhD in elk population dynamics), experience working with state wildlife agencies and federal land management agencies, elk hunting and guiding experience, and fundraising experience from my volunteer work with Ducks Unlimited and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

At Vermejo Park I had been running the largest elk hunting operation in North America for 12 years. So I had a lot of experiences that you normally don’t get in a traditional wildlife biologist’s job that translated directly to my work for the Elk Foundation. And I was also able to bring some of my guest clientele at Vermejo to the Elk Foundation as RMEF board members and donors.

Q: You clearly have a passion for physical fitness, the outdoors and nature. Kids these days seem to have lost passion for all three of those. Do you see that as troubling, and if so, what can land trusts do to rekindle that outdoor passion among youth?

A: I find it very troubling. You have to have a constituency who cares in order to protect anything. You need a constituency who is passionate…in this case about wildlife and wild places. We’re all familiar with Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods” and the growing nature deficit amongst our youth.

This was really driven home about three years ago. Sally Jewel, the CEO of REI, was a guest speaker at the University of Montana and she discussed REI’s corporate strategy of connecting people to the outdoors. She specifically mentioned private land conservation, and it was interesting in the way she mentioned it. She said for years REI had provided grants to wonderful groups like The Nature Conservancy to help them protect the land. But she said that with this growing nature deficit with kids, REI had re-thought their grant program. She said that now instead of funding habitat conservation, REI provides grants to organizations that focus on getting kids outdoors, involved and connected to nature in a direct way. So it was really interesting to see what was relevant. REI is concerned about losing its next generation of customers.

How can land trusts address that? I think a lot depends on the land trust. Every land trust is different, with a different constituency and a different focus. Some of the community land trusts get kids involved with habitat stewardship - Five Valleys Land Trust (in Missoula) is a perfect example of that. Five Valleys has great connections with landowners, works on habitat enhancement projects, and has outstanding stewardship programs, which all present great opportunities to engage kids on the ground. Or a land trust like Prickly Pear Land Trust (in Helena) that has helped develop a community trail system and gets kids on the trail and stewarding and enjoying the lands they’re protecting.

Vital Ground is a wildlife-focused land trust and we concentrate on some very specific high value wildlife lands that often are fairly remote and far from the urban interface, which makes it more difficult to get kids and other constituencies out on the land.

But something I’ve always felt strongly about since my days with the Elk Foundation is “how do we effectively get kids engaged?” Every organization comes up with their own kids program, and I think there are some real opportunities for the conservation community to collaborate and develop comprehensive youth conservation education programs. And that’s where land trusts like ours can participate - in a broader collaboration and outreach program to get kids outdoors and connected with nature.

Q: You started with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation when there was rapid growth as I understand it, and things were a little crazy. What was it like working as a field director for the RMEF back in the mid 1980s?

A: It was exciting.

Let me back up and talk about how I was recruited at the Elk Foundation. I was working for Vermejo Ranch and I received a flyer from some group up in Montana called the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and they were going to have a magazine, and asked if I’d submit some information on my elk research at Vermejo Ranch. So I gathered up several professional papers I’d written and sent them off.

Then I got a call from Bob Munson, a founder of the Elk Foundation, asking if I would write an article for the first edition of their Bugle Magazine. I thought it might be really neat to have something in their premier edition, so I contributed an article, and that’s how I first got started with the Elk Foundation.

Bob later invited me to attend the Elk Foundation’s first convention in 1985, as a guest speaker on elk management. At the convention, Bob asked me to serve on the Elk Foundation’s advisory board. The first thing Bob asked me to do as a member of the advisory board was write a job description for a field director for the Elk Foundation. I said sure.

As I worked on the job description, the more I thought about it, the more I thought the job looked pretty cool. I told Bob that. About three months later, Bob called up and offered me a job. So I joined the Elk Foundation when it was less than two years old, had less than 5,000 members, and only three chapters.

What I remember is being in the hotel in Denver at the Elk Foundation’s second national convention, with Bob Munson and Charlie Decker, and we’re negotiating about the Elk Foundation job they’d offered me. We’re talking about quitting my dream job as a wildlife biologist at Vermejo and joining this mostly unknown group called the Elk Foundation. Charlie told me the Elk Foundation didn’t have much money, and he wanted to know if my wife and I had a savings account, in case the Elk Foundation couldn’t pay me on a regular basis. Charlie was comforted that we did have a savings account, and he was glad we wouldn’t go bankrupt if the Elk Foundation couldn’t issue paychecks on time.

So we shook hands in the motel room. I left my dream job and took about a 50 percent pay cut to go to work for an outfit no one had ever heard of and who may not be able to meet payroll (laughs). In one sense it was scary, on the other hand it was extremely exciting and entrepreneurial.

Q: You worked your way up at the Elk Foundation and eventually became president and CEO of the outfit. How had the Elk Foundation and land conservation changed from 1986 when you started with RMEF to 2001 when you retired?

A: A couple major ways. First, the Elk Foundation went from being an extremely small organization with a small membership that was virtually unheard of, to a very large, well-known and influential organization. When I left in 2001 we had about 130,000 members and 550 chapters throughout the US and Canada. We had done millions of dollars worth of cooperative projects.

During that same time, the way in which the Elk Foundation accomplished its conservation mission changed significantly. The first Elk Foundation projects were grants to state and federal agencies - like the Forest Service or Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks - to do habitat enhancement work on public lands or fund elk research projects.

We started doing land acquisitions in 1988, and later we started doing conservation easements. The Elk Foundation evolved from being a grant-making organization to an organization that bought land as a bridge financier for state or federal agencies, to an organization that negotiated and held conservation easements.

Q: You didn’t stay retired for long. How did you get recruited to sign on as executive director of The Vital Ground Foundation in 2004?

A: When I left the Elk Foundation in 2001, I truly thought I was going to be retiring. The economy, however, didn’t allow that.

Fortunately, I had a really good network of contacts throughout the conservation community, and after being retired for about two weeks I started receiving calls asking if I was interested in doing some special projects. So I started my own wildlife conservation contracting business. I didn’t consider myself a consultant, because I didn’t tell organizations what to do or how to do it. I’d go in as a contractor and do very specific projects.

One key project was as project manager of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. I was in Denver, traveling as part of the chronic wasting disease effort, speaking at a symposium. On my way home, I got bumped from my flight, spent an extra night in Denver, and was re-routed back to Missoula through Salt Lake City. So I was flying on a day I wasn’t supposed to be flying in a city I wasn’t supposed to be in, when a guy saw a baseball cap I was wearing - it had a bear on it - and tapped me on the shoulder and asked me about the hat.

I told him about my background and work for wildlife and bear habitat and he gave me a big bear hug there in the airport and says, “That’s wonderful, man.” He introduced himself as Doug Seus and said he was with Vital Ground.

Doug mentioned Vital Ground was looking for an executive director, and I said if he sent me the job description I’d be glad to send it around to my colleagues in the conservation community I was working with at the time. I had no intention of applying. I was really happy with the contract work I was doing.

That same night on TV, on the Animal Planet channel, I happened to see an hour special hosted by Jennifer Anniston on grizzly bears, Doug and Lynne Seus and their bear, Bart the Bear. They also had a nice segment on The Vital Ground Foundation.

About a month later someone within Vital Ground asked me if I was interested in applying for the executive director position. Vital Ground was headquartered in Park City, Utah at the time, so I said if you consider moving the organization to Missoula, Montana, I’ll apply for the job. Six months later I was hired as executive director, and six months after that we moved the office to Missoula.

Q: Vital Ground started in 1990 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. What’s Vital Ground’s specific mission and how does it work to accomplish that mission?

A: The grizzly bear is our icon. And our mission is to protect and restore North America’s grizzly bear populations by conserving wildlife habitat.

We focus on land conservation, and 95 percent of what we do as an organization now we do through tools available to land trusts…fee title acquisition and conservation easements. And we build very strong relationships with landowners, and working with those landowners for good, sound management programs on the properties we protect with easements or ownership. We own and manage six different properties in Idaho and hold two conservation easements in Idaho. We have also sponsored three Forest Legacy Program conservation easement projects in Idaho. In Montana we hold five conservation easements.

Vital Ground was started by Doug and Lynne Seus because they wanted, as they put it, to give something back to Bart the Bear’s wild cousins. Bart had starred in Hollywood movies over the years and they wanted to give something back to the wild places and to wildlife. It’s interesting to note that Vital Ground’s early conservation work was actually as a grant-making organization. Vital Ground has helped conserve over 600,000 acres of land during its 20 years, and most of that was through grants to organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, Montana Land Reliance, National Wildlife Federation, American Land Conservancy, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation.

Q: What’s the long-term prognosis for grizzly bears in Montana and North America?

A: Well, it’s totally up to us, as stewards of the land and wildlife. The most significant cause of grizzly bear mortality is conflicts with humans. Whether or not grizzly bears continue to survive in the wild is totally up to us. Biologically, the grizzly bear is very adaptable. It’s not one of these endangered species that has very narrow habitat requirements. Grizzly bears can live in lots of different habitats. They’re an omnivore. They eat anything from berries to elk carrion to garbage. But they get in trouble with people. They get shot. They get run over by trains and cars.

There are about 1,500 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states and those bears all live in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho or Washington. That compares to an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 states when Lewis & Clark came through here 200 years ago. So there’s been a very significant decline in the bear population and their distribution. If you go up north, there’s an estimated 30,000+ grizzly bears in Alaska.

We’ve shown, through the appropriate use of the Endangered Species Act, that we can recover the bear. The grizzly bear population had recovered significantly since it was first listed in 1975. The Yellowstone grizzly bear population is near or at recovery levels. DNA studies show there are more bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem than previously believed. So the prognosis for grizzly bear recovery is very positive, if we’re willing to continue to protect some of the last remaining grizzly bear habitats and modify our behaviors in grizzly country.

Q: What do you see as the major challenges to private land conservation in Montana?

A: I’m going to frame that with regards to Vital Ground. We’re focused on some very strategic parcels. The areas where we work are defined by where the grizzly bear lives - grizzly bear recovery areas and the key linkages between those areas.

We’re continuing focus more intently on the linkages within and between those grizzly bear habitats that provide travel corridors for bears and all wildlife to move across the landscape from one core habitat to another. What we’re finding is that those linkage zones tend to be lands located along the valley bottoms, and those valley bottoms tend to be privately-owned and have the highways, railroad tracks, and roadside developments. These are very developable lands, both for residential and commercial purposes.

It is crucial that we protect these very specific and vulnerable linkage zones. What we see as a challenge for us, quite frankly, is having the financial capital to fund strategic land conservation projects with specific landowners that happen to own a strategically-located parcel within a critical linkage area.

Keep in mind we’re limited in where we work and we’re focused in what we do. We work strategically on specific parcels of land, and we need the financial resources to purchase these strategically-located linkage lands. Not just any parcel and not just any landowner. That parcel and that landowner, based specifically and strategically on grizzly movements. And we have found that because the grizzly bear is an “umbrella species”, protecting habitat for the grizzly protects habitat for a wide range of native species including elk, deer, moose, and bighorn sheep.

Q: When Gary Wolfe calls it a career, what do you want people to be able to say about you?

A: I’m going to answer that by telling a story.

I owe everything I’ve done in natural resources and conservation to my dad. He introduced me to hunting and fishing when I was very young. He took me deer hunting when I was three years old and he took me fishing when I was even younger than that.

I can remember as a little tyke, really, hunting in Central Texas, shivering, waiting for some whitetails. And I can remember being in hunting camp in northern New Mexico, probably sometime in the late 1950s when I was about nine or ten years old. We were sitting around the campfire, my dad and his hunting partners - I think I was the only kid in the group - and my dad told his hunting partners that he wanted to make sure that he got me out in the woods as much as he could, because “when Gary is grown his kids are not going to have the same opportunity to experience this the way he has.”

I was very young at the time. But my dad’s comment really affected me — it got something spinning in my head. I thought, “Wait a minute, what do you mean…when I’m grown I won’t be able to do this with my kids? They won’t be able to experience a hunting trip, sitting around a campfire, planning tomorrow’s hunt in some great wild country?” I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at the time, but I do remember thinking, in response to my dad’s comments, “Not if I have anything to do about it.”

That’s really what inspired my conservation career, and when it’s over I hope people will be able to honestly say: “Gary made a difference—he helped to conserve our wildlife and wild places.”

Q: If a college graduate student currently majoring in wildlife biology asked you for the single most important piece of advice you could give, what would it be?

A: I would say to focus on being a good communicator. I’m taking it for granted the person is a good biologist. What I tell people - and I’ve been asked this question a lot - is that you need to think about how you’re going to relate what you know to the general public. Keep in mind the great majority of people are apathetic about what you’re passionate about - wildlife and wild places. How you turn your education and passion into success is being a good communicator. You need to find a way to convey your knowledge and your passion to the general public so that they become inspired to take the conservation action you’d like them to take.

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