https://www.rmef.org/elk-network/volunteer-vanguard/

By Tom Kuglin

Gloved hands and tools reached through the aspen tangle, pulling strands of rusted barbed wire darkened from years in the elements and a wildfire a few years earlier. A volunteer emerged for a moment to wipe away sweat and dirt from her brow, grabbing a drink of water before disappearing back into the jungle of wire and work. Outside the thicket, more Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers coiled wire and stacked posts beneath the Colorado sun as it shrank shadows cast by summits of the nearby Buffalo Peaks Wilderness.

“I’ve been in Colorado all my life and I grew up in these mountains,” says volunteer Desiree Troutman, who serves as finance chair for RMEF’s Upper Arkansas Valley Chapter. Last July, Troutman and several of her family members joined nearly 100 other RMEF volunteers who traveled here to Weston Pass to dismantle and haul away relic fence that posed a threat to wildlife and livestock on the Pike National Forest southwest of Fairplay, Colorado.

“It’s important to come out and volunteer because we ride, we hunt, we fish and we want to make sure future generations have some of those same opportunities. If we don’t conserve it now, it won’t be here in the future,” says Troutman.

For the past four decades, RMEF’s volunteers have stood out in their dedication to elk and elk country, tackling on-the-ground projects like the Weston Pass fence removal. In 2023 alone, they led 27 work projects across the country, ranging from fence pulls to water guzzler installations to habitat projects such as thinning that benefit scores of species. And that’s just one side of their many accomplishments. Beginning with the small cadre of volunteers who helped set up and work RMEF’s first Elk Camp convention in Spokane, Washington, in 1985, to the thousands that now host banquets, assist on veteran and youth hunts or other events, their work is what makes the mission of this organization possible.

RMEF’s Colorado volunteers have long spearheaded work projects in many parts of the state, but the Weston Pass fence removal was the first major volunteer project in the Buffalo Peaks area and scheduled shortly after Independence Day. RMEF Senior Eastern Colorado Regional Director Allen Kerby and Eastern Colorado State Chair John Sand wondered how many would sign up. But as has happened countless times in RMEF’s 40 years, volunteers responded in droves and quickly exceeded expectations—so much so that organizers had to cap registration after they reached 100 volunteers and start a waiting list. If the project needed more hands, Kerby says they easily could have doubled that number.

“We had no idea we would get the kind of response that we’ve gotten, especially the weekend after the Fourth of July, we thought we were lucky if we would get 30 or 40 people,” says Sand. “It’s just absolutely wonderful.”

Peaks topping 13,000 feet edged with conifer, aspen and sagebrush flats define this part of the Pike National Forest. In terms of elk hunting, the area falls within Colorado’s coveted Unit 49—a place managed for older-aged bulls that requires a slew of preference points to draw.

But that’s not the only incentive volunteers had to work hard that day. Weston Pass is an important elk calving area and hosts critical winter range for over a quarter of the nearly 3,700 elk in the Buffalo Peaks’ herd. In fact the project area closes to vehicle traffic from Jan. 1-June 15 to help protect the area’s elk, mule deer and other wintering wildlife.

 “We want to get this barbed wire cleaned up to make it safer for wildlife and the cattle that are up here grazing to give them safer passage through the forest,” says Kerby. The area includes several grazing allotments, but producers have found success keeping livestock in place without fencing, instead using other means such as collars that trigger when cows approach the allotment’s border. The fence removal and other work in the area, including RMEF funding of a 2021 water development project east of Weston Pass, improves habitat and migration paths for wildlife.

 “RMEF focuses on elk, but the work they do on the landscape, whether it’s land conservation or enhancement, benefits all the wildlife that lives there,” said Tim Lozano, chairman of the Castle Rock Chapter and a volunteer on the fence pull. “As a conservation organization, I can’t think of a better group to support with my time and money.”   

The volunteer crew blazed through the underbrush as they stacked coiled wire along a nearby road for pickup. Those not fighting through the foliage and fencing hauled water and tools back and forth to keep everyone supplied. The work was hard, but the company was good.

“The fun is in the people—heck, my 77-year-old mother is out here with a walker cleaning up trash because she wants to come out and help,” says DeeAnn Troutman, mother of Desiree and co-chair of the Upper Arkansas Valley Chapter. “Everyone is helping everyone.”

Among those supplying water was 9-year-old Abigail Sand, granddaughter of John, who brought plenty of enthusiasm while riding on the side-by-side and handing out water bottles to the thirsty crew. The project offered a great learning opportunity about conserving wildlife habitat. “I feel that’s important because the deer and the elk can get food safely and then they don’t get caught,” she says of removing the fence. The chance to camp with her family and explore were also highlights.

Since downed trees and underbrush created significant obstacles for the fence pull, RMEF partnered with STIHL to outfit some of the volunteers with battery-powered chainsaws and safety equipment. STIHL Director of Branch Operations Jim Kneeland, who is also an RMEF member, camped on-site with his family to donate his time, labor and equipment to the work project. “I always say that elk hunters are some of the scrappiest, fittest people and the group that showed up today really got to it and worked hard,” he says. “It was an excellent opportunity for me to share some of the tools that I have at my disposal to help out a project in my home state.”  

Organizers had planned a full day to pull a little over a mile of fence. By noon, volunteers dropped the last of the coils and posts into a pile. But with plenty of daylight left, the Forest Service scrambled to find another section of fence that needed to go. Shortly after lunch, a caravan of RMEF volunteers headed out again on a quest to exceed the project’s goals.

Josh Voorhis, South Park District ranger with the Forest Service, says he’d love to have the RMEF crew return and hoped the volunteer project would be the first of many on the Pike National Forest—RMEF recently confirmed another work project for this July. “They came well prepared; they’re excellent volunteers and we really got a lot accomplished. Next time we have to find even more fence for them to pull!”

Work projects cater to the variety of RMEF members looking to volunteer, says John Sand. “Any way we can get a volunteer interested, whether it’s working on a fence project, helping with the banquet or just helping with the ticket raffle, ticket sales, whatever you can do to get them involved is where it’s at. I understand it’s hard for a family to donate their time, but when they do, you want to make it special, and you want to be able to give them something to look at that they helped accomplish.”

 

While work projects like Weston Pass allow volunteers to put their skills to work on the ground, the dollars raised through banquets and other events are a big part of what drive RMEF’s ability to conserve habitat, open up access and preserve hunting as an important wildlife management tool and heritage, says Volunteer Program Director Jared Wold.

“It’s the way our organization is built for our volunteers to organize events that raise the dollars to fund RMEF’s projects—and they’re really good at it,” he says. “Our volunteers are always evolving our events to stay relevant and to benefit the attendees.”

Since 1985 when Flagstaff, Arizona, hosted the first banquet, local RMEF chapters have gone on to stage close to 14,000. In 2023, volunteer chapter committees organized 414 banquets across the country. Between banquets, other events and raffles, volunteer efforts produced more than $21.4 million for the mission. In 2023, perennial top chapter Tucson, Arizona, topped all others, raising more than $400,000; followed by Grand Junction, Colorado, at over $350,000; and Billings, Montana, eclipsing $225,000. RMEF set a goal of 442 banquets for 2024 as in-person events continue to bounce back post-pandemic.  

While many chapters generate tens of thousands of dollars for elk and their habitat, not many can claim that when RMEF throws a party, half the town shows up. But in Mackay, Idaho, with a population of just over 400, the Lost River Chapter’s banquet each April is one of the biggest events of the year, drawing about 200 attendees.

“We hold it in the spring when winter is just getting over and everybody’s a little housebound and ready to get out, so they all come down to the banquet and we have a really good time,” says Chapter Chair Denise Johnson. “We know everybody personally, know their kids, so you know it’s more like a large group of friends that get together to have a good time and raise money for a good cause.”

With the Lost River Range right outside their backdoors, this rural community is deeply invested in Idaho’s wildlife and habitat. Johnson and 14 committee volunteers have developed a great system for sharing responsibilities to put the event together. The only space large enough to host the banquet is the local firehouse, so each year on a Friday they pull out the firetrucks to give the volunteers the space and time to clean and set up for the Saturday banquet. And in classic smalltown style, they enlist high school sports teams and 4H clubs to come in and help.

“We all have kids that hunt, and we all hunt,” says Johnson. “That’s the reason we as a committee do what we do.”

The Lost River banquet draws attendees from across Idaho as well as Utah and Wyoming for an incredible prime rib dinner cooked and cut onsite. Then it’s time for games, raffles and auctions that, after the dust settles, typically raise an impressive $260 per person for RMEF’s mission.

“We love to laugh and joke, and when somebody wins a prize, there’s more hootin’ and hollerin’ going on,” says Johnson. “Here are a bunch of ranchers and farmers, and to be able to raise that kind of money in this small of a town, I think that’s pretty fantastic.”

This kind of pride from RMEF’s volunteers and community support echoes across the country, living out the founders’ vision to support a mission that’s so far conserved 8.9 million acres and opened new or improved public access to nearly 1.6 million acres. For John Tuter, RMEF’s Southwest Regional chair, banquets big and small, and the people that dedicate their time to make them a success, are what inspires his passion to volunteer.

“Whether it’s some of these smaller towns and it’s 50 or 100 people attending, or its Tucson and it’s 1,300 people, it’s a big deal for these communities every year,” he says. “For these committees, it’s about friendship and working as a team. It just comes down to teamwork, everyone coming together, having fun and doing it for the mission so that we get the best bang for the buck. Obviously, we couldn’t do the banquet system without the volunteers, their time and effort.”

Tuter attended his first banquet in 1994 in Kansas City, an experience that inspired the Missouri native to come west to hunt elk. For the last three decades after making Arizona his home, he has served in multiple volunteer positions for RMEF and now oversees the entire Southwest.

Tuter says banquets attract people from all walks life who come together for a common cause, and while fundraising, he’s met people he now considers some of his best friends spread all across the nation. “It’s been a really amazing experience, actually.”

Banquets typically come with a few staples—great food, fun games, spirited auctions—but chapters often come up with new ideas that differentiate their events and raise more dollars, Tuter says. Not every experiment pans out, but that spirit of learning and evolving has produced some great new concepts that benefit not only that chapter, but then get adopted by others.

That quest for ingenuity led RMEF to host its first Volunteer Summit last July. It brought 61 volunteers, 39 field staff and the board of directors to Missoula for training and dialogue on the common challenges and potential solutions RMEF faces as a volunteer-based organization looking forward to its next 40 years. The feedback received was nothing short of phenomenal, Wold says, and RMEF plans to make the summit an annual event. 

 “It’s just awesome to be a part of these passionate people that are our volunteers,” says Wold. “They’ve done it at such a high level for a very long time and just continue to work their butts off. They’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the mission of the Elk Foundation is successful.”

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