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MEMBER SPOTLIGHT - Julie Cunningham

August 26, 2020

Today's member spotlight is on Julie Cunningham, the Bozeman area wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Learn why Julie has supported the RMGA since it's inception.

My name is Julie Cunningham, and I am the Bozeman area wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  My job is diverse, but focuses on management of ungulates, hoofed mammals, in eight hunting districts around Bozeman.  This means I work on survey and inventory (counting) elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn, moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats, and then setting responsible and sustainable hunting regulations and quotas for these species.  

Survey and inventory involves lots of flying, either from a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter. (Note: photo above is Julie and chief pilot for MFWP, Joe Rahn, who is the key man who’s helped Julie get some all-time record high goat counts in some districts in the last couple years.  He’s amazing at flying goats, and he loves goats too.  He has a saying from his time in Alaska: “Sheep go where men don’t go. Goats go where sheep don’t go.”)

Survey and inventory work also involves a lot of groundwork. I backpack or use horses or ATVs or snowmobiles – whatever it takes to see what I need to see.  I work with teams of other MFWP staff who specialize in research and wildlife health monitoring, so I may also attend to radio-collared animals or respond to a call about a diseased animal.  I respond to complaints about agricultural damage from these species.  I work with lands projects and people to create or maintain conservation easements, public lands additions, and administration of the Gallatin and Bear Creek Wildlife Management areas.

My job is funded through hunting license dollars and the Pittman-Robertson match, so I do my best to be responsive to the hunters who call asking for advice on where to go hunting.  Besides being in the field, one of my favorite parts of this job is getting to know the people who hold bighorn sheep and mountain goat licenses each year.  These are often once-in-a-lifetime hunts, and so I do what I can to help these hunters.  In return, they share stories with me about their adventures and what they see in the field.  I keep waiting to draw one of these tags myself!  But until then, I enjoy getting to hear from, and be a small part of, the adventures and stories of the people who do draw each year.

Like many of us, my job is kind of wrapped up with my very identity.  I was born to be a wildlife biologist, it’s all I ever wanted to be since childhood.  I can’t imagine doing any other profession.  So my hobbies outside wildlife management aren’t really very different.  I love to ski, go backpacking, go hiking, and go hunting.  The one thing I do apart from my profession is Taekwondo, my sport since high school, where I hold a 4th degree black belt.  And yes, it has come in handy a couple times in the field!  My husband and I have two running jokes: one is that no matter how far that’s left in a hike, I’ll always tell him “it’s just another mile, let’s keep going!” and that when I try to remind him where we were hiking on any particular trip, I can’t say “Remember, it’s the one where I looked for goats at the top” because that is basically all of them.  We do have a 7-year-old son who has joined me on 2 “official” goat ground counts, one in the Bridgers and one in the Bob Marshall.  He’s named Logan after Logan Pass in Glacier Park, which was the first place he saw mountain goats up close.  He’s an enthusiastic mountain goat watcher now!

I’ve been involved with RMGA since 2013 when Peter Muennich founded the group.  In fact, we brainstormed the group’s first volunteer project.  At the time, MFWP did not have a lot of flight budget to support frequent mountain goat surveys, and there was an area where the MFWP fisheries crew had seen a good number of goats, which I had also observed during a field day myself.  However, such individual and anecdotal sightings couldn’t get a full picture of the goat population.  Peter and I figured that if we coordinated volunteers to do hikes up a couple major drainages at the same day, we could get a better count and perhaps see if there were enough goats to merit opening the district to hunting.  The RMGA volunteers did a great job finding goats and recording data, so and we were able to open HD 361 to goat hunting in 2014.  This new district has been a resounding success, with 2 licenses a year producing excellent age-class billies.  And due to sound hunting management (a low harvest rate) plus selection by hunters taking billies, the population has continued to grow!  In 2021, we will propose to increase to 3 licenses a year in this district!

1. Why did you choose to become a member of RMGA?

I chose to become a member of RMGA because I am so impressed with how their money goes straight to conservation work and products. I enjoy their youthful energy, their facebook page which provides great discussions and “billy or nanny” quizzes.  I am impressed that they have a science and conservation mindset: they truly support the science of wildlife management, and we biologists and agencies in the field.  Although we all enjoy when we can issue more hunting licenses for hunters, I am impressed that RMGA will be equally supportive of license reductions when merited to keep a population healthy.  They understand that to advocate for future goat hunting equates to responsible goat hunting management today.  Their educational video about goat classification and identification is top-notch!  I am proud to sport their logo on my truck and will wear their t-shirts with pride!

Since 1997, I have been a member of The Wildlife Society, the professional organization of wildlife biologists, and have held leadership roles to include President of the Montana Chapter and President of the Northwest Section (member states Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana).  On the job, I enjoy working with other sportspersons organizations, including (but not limited to!) Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wild Sheep Foundation, and Mule Deer Foundation, and other conservation groups like Gallatin Valley Land Trust, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the National Parks Conservation Alliance, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and more.  These groups often work behind-the-scenes to support huge management actions: creating conservation easements, adding land to a WMA for elk winter range, providing additional funding for projects, providing educational materials, or setting up volunteer field days to get some good work done.  There is a lot of conservation need out there, and it’s great that there are lots of groups of people ready to help!

2. What was your first ever experience with mountain goats and what's the story?

My first experience with mountain goats is kind of a story…  I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college doing my summer job, an internship with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, out of Libby, MT.  On a day off (the 4th of July), I went hiking up Fourth of July Creek in the Cabinet Mountains (it seemed fitting to choose that creek on that day).  I collected a bunch of goat hair off bushes along the way, then finally saw the goats up on the hills behind the lake!  I had never seen goats so close before, and I wanted to get closer.  So I scrambled up the hill/cliff to get a better look.  Before I knew it, because I was so focused on watching the goats, I’d gotten myself in a bad spot on a cliff.  I fell and bounced three times before landing head first between a snowbank and the cliff.  Fortunately, I was able to wiggle out and hike out with some severe bruising but no lasting injury.  Thanks perhaps to a “high block” I threw to protect my head during my tumble, my arm swelled up with a bone bruise, but I didn’t smash my noggin.  Guess Taekwondo helped me that day!  Anyway, I now have even more appreciation for how skillfully goats navigate their habitats.  They make the mountain climbing look easy!

3. What do you think is the most important wildlife conservation success in modern history?

The most important conservation success in modern history – what a question!  There is a lot, but I will pick the Pittman-Robertson Act.  In 1937 sportspersons to agree to a tax on their own sporting arms and ammunition for the express purpose of providing funding for wildlife research and management.  The Act provides up to 75% of the cost of approved wildlife projects, often with the remainder match coming from hunting license sales, in states across America.  The Act has provided more than $11 BILLION since its inception – every penny dedicated to conservation.  Because of the funding from this act, MFWP was able to perform the scores of trap-and-transplant operations which repopulated species across our state, which helped our large ungulate populations recover from the lows after unregulated harvest and market hunting.  It was out funds raised by this act that Montana introduced mountain goats to the Madison Mountain Range.

Another reason I selected this act as the most important conservation success is that this act unequivocally married hunting and conservation.  It highlights the inherent sustainability of responsible, science-based wildlife management and how hunting is a foundational method to manage and conserve wildlife.  Hunters often have a generational mindset – they want their kids and grandkids to be able to go enjoy the wildlife in the same way they could, testing their skills and mettle in the real world, the wild world.  Hunters want to retain the knowledge of how to bring healthy wild meat home for their families.  Hunters know and care about wildlife.  This act emphasizes this relationship.  Another thing I appreciate about the Act, and about my agency as a whole, is how we work across property ownerships to perform conservation: that we maintain so much “megafauna” across lands where people live, work, and recreate.  You don’t have to go to a National Park to see these wildlife, thanks in part to Pittman-Robertson (among other state and federal acts and policies of course), you can see wildlife across the diverse land ownerships of Montana.

4. Let's practice our mountain goat ID! Is this a billy or a nanny, and why? 

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