DARBY, Mont. - It's almost September, and dozens of "shooter bulls' have been turned into the shooting enclosure of Big Velvet Elk Ranch, just south of here, in western Montana's Bitterroot Valley. Ranch owner Len Wallace has booked 80 clients for the fall and every one of them is going to shoot a trophy elk, guaranteed, right there inside the fence.
clients, rifle and archery enthusiasts alike, put down $5,900 per
animal. In the 1,800-acre enclosure, some prefer to shoot from
vehicles at close range and others prefer a more realistic hunting
scenario and chase their game on foot. Everyone leaves with the
meat, the head, and the antlers. This is trophy hunting,
1990s-style: Safe, fast and expensive.
our hunters go home very happy boys," says Wallace. What happens on
his ranch, he explains, is like plucking a live lobster out of a
water tank to cook. "Hunting covers a wide range of things people
After four state-approved expansions, Big
Velvet Ranch has become Montana's biggest game farm: 2,000 acres
and 800 elk set in the middle of some of the nation's most
significant wildlife habitat. Wallace owns another 3,000 acres
nearby that are not part of the operation. The ranch - one of a
dozen game farms in the West which offer "shoot for pay" hunting -
has become a flashpoint in a debate over the environmental
implications and ethics of game farming, including harvesting the
velvet antlers of bull elk, a $3 billion international business
that supplies the south Asian traditional medicine
A year ago, when Wallace tried to fence
off another 1,100 acres he owns adjacent to his ranch, the conflict
erupted. Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz calls the situation "a
big hoorah" of harassment complaints involving Wallace, sporting
groups and conservationists campaigning against the ranch. Wallace
says people have pulled down fencing around the ranch, snipers have
fired on ranch employees and helicopters have buzzed his
"It's a very big mess," says Printz.
"It's the Hatfields and McCoys, in a manner of speaking."
Critics call Wallace the "arrogant" master of a
ranch that threatens wildlife and natural habitat. "Big Velvet
Ranch is a rogue operation," says Rich Day, of the National
Wildlife Federation office in Missoula. Wallace describes his
critics as "anti-game-farm scum," and himself as Montana's chief
spokesman for the industry. He says game farming, and his ranch in
particular, are targets of government regulation gone
"There's somewhat of an anti-business bias
in Montana these days," Wallace explains. "They don't want you to
cut trees or mine, they don't want you to have cattle, they don't
want you to do anything."
big pink house
To understand Big Velvet Ranch and
the controversy, it helps to know what the ranch looks like. Four
miles south of Darby, Mont., east of Highway 93, Rye Creek winds
its way down from the Sapphire Range through sagebrush country of
hard-grazed steeps and gullies, and crosses the ranch on its way to
union with the Bitterroot River. From the highway, the ranch is
marked by the Wallaces' sprawling, bright-pink log home on the edge
of Rye Creek, and by miles of raw roadcuts that crisscross the
ranch on hills above and to the north of the creek. When Wallace
bought the property in 1991, he clear-cut 640 acres of Douglas fir
and pine to make pasture.
wire fences framed by heavy wood posts bisect and surround the
property. The ground on the hillsides remains bare and rocky,
trampled by penned elk along the perimeter, by the maintenance
crew's four wheelers, and snowmelt and storm runoff. Outside the
fences, the land is less battered, and yellow flowers of balsamroot
and antelope bitterbrush dot hillsides of a much deeper green.
On Rye Creek Road, a mile east of Highway 93,
the holding pens and feedlots come into view, a maze of tall wire
mesh with a heavy-gauge electrified wire running on both sides.
Red-lettered signs warn away gawkers: "No Stopping On Roadway." The
elk in the pens stand together or lie in groups, and when a car
passes on the road, they pay close attention, their wide ears
cocked like exclamation points.
Earl Butler, who
worked as a foreman at Big Velvet Ranch until he quit his job last
year, knows the operation well. "I left the Big Velvet because I am
a hunter," he says, "and what they do up there is not a hunt."
Butler tells of guiding one ranch client who
refused to leave the cab of a ranch pickup until the elk he wanted
to shoot was driven on the road at close range. Another client shot
a bull elk in the lungs, but didn't kill it. For reasons Butler has
never understood, the man refused to kill the animal with a
follow-up shot. The elk staggered down a hillside to the ranch
fence beside a public road, where it stood before passersby, blood
spraying from its nostrils with every breath for 20 minutes before
And then there's the "velveting"
process, in which Butler worked, and which he found repellent.
Velvet antlers, which sell for $60 a pound in south Asia, are
ground into powder and used in tonics for common maladies and as an
aphrodisiac. During the antler harvest, bull elk are driven one by
one down a narrow corridor to the ranch's handling facilities. At
the end of the corridor, the bull stands trapped in a chute as a
hydraulic vise tightens around his body and lifts him off the
floor, while a separate vise closes around his
This, says Butler, prepares the elk for a
dose of electric current. Ranch hands use electricity to immobilize
the animal in place of anesthetic because Asian buyers complain
that drugs contaminate the product. The ranch hands attach an
electrode to the bull's lip and another to the skin around his
anus. Then they flip a switch, directing current through the
animal. They tie a tourniquet where the antler joins the skull, and
amputate the antlers with a handsaw. Blood and tissue stain the
plywood walls around the chute.
activities and the velveting harvests are legal, though ethically
questionable to environmentalists and hunting purists. And Wallace
admits that no animal shot on his farm would be knowingly
recognized as a trophy on the Boone and Crockett point system, the
traditional scoring scale for
Wallace, a tall and stocky man from Southern
California, wore a baseball cap when he sat for an interview in his
cluttered, dusty office to discuss the ranch he calls, "my
retirement. That's the reason I get up every morning at three
o'clock to work on it." The office is decorated with the enormous
heads of elk. One head is wrapped in a feather boa with a piece of
rolled paper stuck in its mouth like a cigarette. "Hunting here on
the ranch is no different than anywhere else," Wallace says. "All
over the country animals are confined. It may be by an interstate
highway, a city, a river, whatever, these boundaries are not any
different than a fence."
Wallace made a fortune
in the California electronics business, building and selling
electronic power packs, before coming to the Bitterroot Valley with
his wife in 1991 to start Big Velvet Ranch. But as the ranch has
grown, so have protests. Last year, when Wallace applied for a
fifth permit to expand, things came to a
Terry Klampe, a former state senator who
lives 45 miles away in Florence, Mont., began citing it in a
campaign to get the state Legislature to declare a moratorium on
game farming. "The damage to clean water, fish, and wildlife that
has been caused by (Big Velvet Ranch) reflects a total lack of
concern for public property and public interests," Klampe
But state officials aren't likely to act on
a moratorium soon. Game farming in Montana has become big business.
This year, 30 more game-farm applications have been filed; 90 farms
are already operating. But Klampe and his supporters - including
the National Wildlife Federation, the Montana Wildlife Federation
and Ducks Unlimited - are pushing hard. They've mounted an
information campaign and they spoke against the ranch at last
spring's state-sponsored public meetings on the Big Velvet Ranch
In June, the state, citing the need to
protect a wildlife migration corridor, rejected the permit. To
date, the state has spent $200,000 on the Big Velvet Ranch issue,
and it's not over yet. Wallace has appealed the permit rejection
and will get a hearing before state wildlife commissioners in
In Montana, the state can deny an
operating license to a game farm that threatens critical habitat.
State wildlife enforcement officer Karen Zackheim says Big Velvet
Ranch already consumes half the winter range for elk, mule deer and
white-tailed deer, and the expansion would have taken another 2
percent of the habitat. "We're not asking (Wallace) to do anything
anyone else is not already doing," she says. "We are concerned
about the wildlife resource."
In 1994, Wallace
completed the ranch's fourth expansion to include the 1,800-acre
upper enclosure and the lodge. Under Montana law, the "public's
wildlife' - that is, any free-roaming wild game animal - must not
be permanently enclosed by private fences, so Wallace and state
game officials undertook an effort over several weeks to displace
wild big game from the area.
Wallace hired local
teenagers to run through rough country, hazing animals - including
775 mule deer - to the outside of the fencing perimeter. The state
and Wallace each hired a helicopter to assist. When the drive was
over, state game wardens had to shoot 49 mule deer that had were
trapped behind the new fence. The wardens called the project a
"mixed success," at a cost to the state of $26,000. The operation
so soured relations with conservationists and sporting groups that
when Wallace proposed the fifth expansion, they quickly
Wallace blames the state for stirring
opposition to his ranch, which he says competes with the state for
hunters. "People who hunt on my property don't have to buy a
hunting license," he says, "and it's not to the (state's) benefit
to have a game farm in existence."
dismisses Wallace's accusation. The state, she says, sells a set
number of hunting licenses at $450 apiece every year and doesn't
have enough licenses to meet
Running afoul of the
1994 is also when Wallace began piling up
violations with federal and state authorities. The U.S. Army Corps
of Engineers has cited Big Velvet Ranch for Clean Water Act
violations in connection with five dams Wallace had built that year
on Lowman Creek, which also flows across the ranch and empties into
Rye Creek. When the two creeks flooded during a winter thaw,
overflow from the dams sent tons of sand and rock debris down Rye
Creek and onto lands off the ranch.
says there was nothing unusual about the debris-flow. "If you look
at the earth, things are changing constantly," he says. "Sand is
always flowing down that creek."
have also cited the ranch for improper fencing and for not
maintaining riparian areas along the two creeks. And they have
documented 24 cases of wild animals breaking into the ranch or
captive game escaping. As a result, wildlife officials have had to
shoot a dozen wild mule deer and three white-tailed
Conservationists and state officials say
game farms, Big Velvet Ranch especially, must be monitored because
of the risk they will spread diseases, such as tuberculosis, as
well as pass the domestic traits of captive animals to wild game.
Wyoming banned game farms for this reason. "If you bring something
that is captive into a (wild) herd, it passes on captive traits,"
says Rick Sylvester, a Wyoming Wildlife Commission spokesman. This
means wild game would develop reduced immunity to disease and the
inability to survive in the wild. "That's what we're trying to
Recent history compounds the worry. In
1994, an epidemic of bovine tuberculosis exploded among elk on game
farms in Alberta, Canada. To protect wild herds, government
shooters destroyed 2,700 head of captive elk and paid $24 million
in compensation to elk ranchers. As a result, Canada's livestock
industry lost its TB-free status, though there have been no
recorded breakouts since.
Two years earlier, in
1992, near Hardin, Mont., tuberculosis was found in a wild mule
deer doe shot outside the fence of a game farm owned by Greg
Stires, of Chino, Calif. The farm had been under a TB quarantine.
The year before, a herd of infected game farm elk was destroyed in
Colorado, and outbreaks occurred in Nebraska and South
Last year, Big Velvet Ranch itself
suffered an outbreak of cryptosporidium virus, an intestinal
infection that breeds in fecal matter in crowded feedlots and
standing water. The disease killed some 30 head of elk. But Wallace
accepts no blame. He says the disease is commonly present in
standing water anywhere, a claim state officials dispute. "The
whole controversy," Wallace says, "is a bogus issue."
Wallace shows no sign of giving up his fight.
He's preparing for his December appeal hearing on the ranch
expansion, arguing that activists have been tearing down ranch
fencing to let captive and wild game mix and make the ranch look
bad. They're the same people, he says, that have been shooting at
ranch hands and buzzing the place with helicopters. "These people
are scum," Wallace says of his opponents. "They are as dishonest as
the day is long."
Sheriff Jay Printz has found
no evidence to support the claims.
Hal Herring writes from
Darby, Montana. HCN associate editor Peter Chilson contributed to
* Contact Karen Zackheim, Montana Department
of Fish, Wildlife and Parks at 406/444-2535;
Contact Rich Day of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula at
* Call Tony Jewett of the Montana
Wildlife Federation at 406/449-7604 or Terry Klampe in Florence,
Mont., at 406/273-2015.