Consider a single sentence that appeared on several news blogs yesterday:
“Meat from 69 elk killed at Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora will be donated to Sportsmen Against Hunger through the North Dakota Community Action Partnership for distribution through food pantries.”
There are several issues worth dissecting in just that one sentence—all of which affect the politics surrounding everything from the fiscal cliff to the farm bill to animal rights to climate change to the national economy to concerns about hunger in America.
Is that enough for five minutes of musing?
Let’s get started.
First of all, consider the elk themselves. Quick story. Many years ago, I spent the winter working as a tree planter (now known as a “reforestation specialist”) on Siuslaw National Forest timberland in western Oregon. For those who’ve never visited that area of the West Coast, the forest is an incredible mix of dramatic ocean vistas, soaring old-growth Douglas fir and blue spruce—trees that supplied the materials for Howard Hughes’ famous Spruce Goose airplane, by the way—and the sandy hills of the Oregon Dunes that stretch for miles along the coastline.
But much of the Siuslaw consists of endless rainforest, with months of relentless precipitation each year that produces not only tall trees but impenetrable brush that required us lowly tree planters to literally hack our way through the units the way those great white explorers in the old Tarzan movies slashed through the (fake) jungle to escape the cannibals.
One morning, our crew stood huddled in the pre-dawn darkness at the bottom of a recently logged-off area, waiting to begin eight hours of battling waist-high brush so thick your feet rarely touched the ground. As people stood talking and laughing, we suddenly heard a snort right behind us.
We all turned around, and within seconds an entire herd of elk, maybe 30 or 40 animals, suddenly surged past us, so smoothly, effortlessly, noiselessly that if we hadn’t been standing close enough to touch one of them as they flew past, we’d wouldn’t have had a clue they were there.
Keep in mind these are 700-lb. animals standing six feet tall—not counting their antlers—yet they stood within a couple yards of 20 guys without a single one of us realizing it. Their adaptation to their environment, in this case, a steep coastal mountain range covered with dense undergrowth, is simply incredible.
A philosophy to follow
Yet, that very efficiency means that in the absence of predators, elk populations can expand beyond what their range can support, which is exactly what happened in North Dakota. According to the Bismark Tribune, the elk there were culled by National Park Service teams this fall as part of the park’s elk management plan. Hunting—culling, whatever you call it—angers plenty of activists, the same ones who decry the practice of raising domesticated food animals. But in this case, it’s a tool that any wildlife manager would admit is essential to maintain the well-being of these magnificent animals.
Equally important, more than 10,000 pounds of elk meat was donated to food banks across the state as a result of the hunt (and nobody mentions it, but processing those animals kept more than a few local meat plants humming for several weeks). Would anyone—even diehard vegans—complain that feeding literally thousands of people in need of supplemental food, especially during the holidays, is somehow offensive?
Hope not, Scrooge.
Finally, consider the venue—the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 110 square miles in North Dakota badlands named in honor of our 26th president. TR was a Republican, a cattle rancher before becoming governor of New York, vice president and eventually president. He loved hunting, wrote numerous articles about the sport and cultivated the image of the rugged rancher riding herd across the High Plains, not to mention his oft-noted stint leading the Army’s Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.
So why is the North Dakota park named after him? Because he spent several years back in the 1880s hunting bison in the area, no doubt contributing to that species’ near-extinction.
For all his blunt, tough-talking persona (“Speak softly but carry a big stick”), which today’s Republicans would love, Roosevelt earned a reputation as a “trust buster” who took on the era’s big corporations. His Square Deal promoted social programs for the working class, he championed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act and he even won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way. He was also our nation’s greatest presidential conservationist, establishing the National Parks system, creating the Forest Service and establishing conservation on public lands as official government policy.
Could he even get to the podium at a modern GOP convention? Doubtful, which is a shame. In much the same way that knee-jerk condemnation of hunting—and hunters—belies the value they contribute to wildlife management, knocking TR for being progressive is exactly the wrong lesson to take from his presidency.
He, unlike numerous presidents both before and after, understood both the value of a life spent working on the range, as well as the importance of addressing the social ills of millions of working families who, even today, will never set foot on the Western landscape he loved.
That’s not a bad philosophy, even if it is a century after TR first embraced its utility.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.