Elk NetworkHundreds Help RMEF Celebrate 40 Years

40th Anniversary , General , Volunteer News | May 10, 2024

By Tom Kuglin, Bugle Hunting & Outdoor Lifestyle Editor

It was a memorable weekend for conservation in Missoula, Montana, as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and hundreds of supporters celebrated 40 years of ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

From its humble beginnings in tiny Troy, Montana, in 1984 to the national conservation powerhouse of today, RMEF celebrated its 40th anniversary from May 3-4 as a chance to honor a legacy while looking forward to a bright future for elk country. And it was a chance to have a lot of fun with new and old friends committed to RMEF and everything the organization and its volunteers work tirelessly for.

“There is no organization that has done more through all of the people, the donors, the volunteers, the staff, no one has done more for the life I live of hunting and conservation and access than the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” said Randy Newberg, longtime RMEF supporter and host of Fresh Tracks who served as master of ceremonies for the evening events. “I will never be able to repay the gratitude I have for them and what have done for all of us.”

RMEF kicked things off with a Friday open house at the Grant Creek headquarters. Welcomed in the newly remodeled visitor center with handshakes, hugs and raffles—not to mention elk smash burgers grilling outside—attendees had come from across the country to mark the special occasion.

The open house was just the warmup for Volunteer Fun Night as RMEF took over Missoula’s historic Wilma Theater. Volunteers from east, west, north and south packed the venue to be recognized for their incredible work for conservation and RMEF’s mission.

“We came to Missoula to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the most important conservation organization that there is in the United States of America,” said Jill Cohenour, a volunteer from Helena, Montana. “It does so much amazing work putting money on the ground to actually protect and conserve populations of not only elk, but it’s every other thing in the ecosystem. We’re so lucky to be a part of an organization that actually helps to maintain that for future generations.”

Volunteer Fun Night honored not only top fundraising states such as Montana, Colorado and Pennsylvania which all topped their regions, but also recognized the volunteers themselves, who, as RMEF President & CEO Kyle Weaver told the crowd, “donate their most precious commodity—their time.” Austin Collins of Ohio, Jen Chavez of Utah and J.D. Johnson of Idaho all received RMEF’s Volunteer Contribution Award recognizing the highest level of volunteerism in the organization.

“It simply cannot be overstated—volunteers are the heart of Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation,” Weaver told the crowd. “It was that way 40 years ago, it is that way today and it will be the same way for many years to come.”

Live music, drinks and dancing helped Volunteer Fun Night live up to its name as those who have put so much into RMEF and its mission reveled in the celebration.

Zach Top Band

Anniversary festivities continued Saturday, with a special breakfast for members of the RMEF Trails Society to recognize their extraordinary commitment to elk country. At the same time about 30 hearty souls worked out with partners from MTNTOUGH with training designed to prepare them for the rigors of the backcountry.

(Left to right: Yvonne & RMEF co-founder Charlie Decker)

A pair of volunteer lunches included an ‘80s-style Ladies Luncheon with plenty of neon getups and big hair to remind us of the (perhaps questionable) fashion popular back when RMEF was formed. Meanwhile, the Gun Luncheon offered other attendees raffles for multiple firearms and other hunting gear to raise money for the organization’s mission work.

(Left to right: Anna Marie & Dylan – photo credit: Anna Marie)

“I’m so excited to be here for the 40th anniversary of the Elk Foundation,” said board member AshLee Strong. “Hunting heritage is critical for our family. I have a 6-and-a-half-month-old baby and I hope that I can instill the values that the Elk Foundation has and in the hunting heritage and conservation of this great state and nation. We are so blessed to have the privilege.”

Lining up for the Grand Banquet

Grand Banquet emcee Randy Newberg (left) and auctioneer Taylor Ophus

The Grand Banquet on Saturday night back at the Wilma cemented not only the past four decades of conservation, but also showcased the true impact RMEF has had on so many lives. RMEF’s first industry partners Browning, Leupold, Bass Pro Shops-Cabela’s and Weatherby received honors including artwork featuring their advertisements from the first issue of Bugle Magazine. And agency partners with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game and the U.S. Forest Service were recognized for decades of collaborative projects. 

“Thank you for teaching us how to share leadership, how to share stewardship, and we’re looking forward to the future with you,” said Angela Coleman, Forest Service associate chief. “There’s one saying I want to leave us with and it is that ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.’ We’re proud to be with you.”

(Left to right: Weatherby CEO Adam Weatherby & RMEF Chief Revenue Officer Steve Decker)

RMEF Conservationist of the Year award went to Casey Stemler, a longtime wildlife biologist and driving force behind the Department of the Interior’s 2018 Big Game Winter Range and Migration Corridors Initiative. RMEF has been a major supporter of the project. “Casey’s dedicated efforts led to unprecedented focus and support over the last decade for the conservation of western big game species resulting in millions of dollars in committed funding for mapping, research, barrier removal and land and wildlife conservation,” said Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer.

Stemler, citing his faith, humbly accepted the award as a recognition of not only his work, but the efforts of so many in conservation. “I’m being recognized for this, but I feel a little guilty because you cannot do this without partners and all the people on the landscape doing the work. Thank you for recognizing me, but really, thank you for recognizing all the people,” said Stemler.

The evening brought out plenty of emotions as co-founder Charlie Decker read a letter from fellow co-founder Bob Munson, who could not attend due to health reasons. Decker impassionedly thanked the crowd, saying, “I can’t believe where we are today but you are the people that made it happen. We’re just the vehicle that the good Lord used a long time ago that didn’t know what they were doing but we’re here and we’re here to stay. Thank each and every one of you very much.”

As a surprise to Decker and Munson, the legacy they laid in stone will now be set in bronze. RMEF commissioned life-sized sculptures of the two founders that once completed, will greet visitors at the entrance of the Elk Country Visitor Center at RMEF headquarters. Munson, who was watching remotely, texted a lighthearted reply that was read to the crowd: “Charlie, yours is going to cost a lot more than mine.”

(Left to right: RMEF President & CEO Kyle Weaver, RMEF Board of Directors Chair Fred Lekse, Charlie & Yvonne Decker)

In a moving surprise announcement, Newberg received the Wallace Fennell Pate Award, the organization’s highest conservation honor. With his son Matthew on stage and wife Kim in the crowd, Newberg delivered an emotional impromptu speech detailing early efforts in advocacy to growing a media force for hunters, wildlife and public lands, and thanking his supporters, sponsors and RMEF staff and volunteers that help drive him to this day.

“I’ve been blessed in so many respects that I can’t count them all,” he said.

Randy Newberg & son Matthew

With country music star Randy Houser getting ready to take the stage, Weaver asked how to understand, appreciate and honor 40 years of conservation. The answer, he said, comes from those who made the trip to Missoula and everyone that makes the work of RMEF possible.  

“It’s the people. It’s our members, our volunteers, our donors, our conservation partners, our sponsors. It’s you!” he said. “Here’s to you and four conservation-crammed decades of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation!”

(Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)