You can hear the booming of high-caliber rifles on the elk farms of Montana this fall, as well-heeled clients enter fenced enclosures to experience "no kill-no pay" hunting, and to test their marksmanship on the trophy bull of their choice. There's no shortage of clients, and even under tough new restrictions imposed to combat chronic wasting disease, a relative of mad cow disease, business is good (HCN, 9/27/99: Disease is wasting the West's wild herds).
Elk ranchers also say that demand for elk meat is expanding, and the trade in velvet - the immature, blood-rich antler marketed as a tonic and aphrodisiac - has rebounded with the Asian economy. There are 82 elk-ranching operations in Montana, and in contrast to financially stressed grain and cattle operations, the elk industry seems ripe for expansion.
But it has been an extremely controversial business in this state, where wild elk are revered, and where traditional hunting and conservation ethics are regarded with an almost religious fervor.
A sportsmen's group called MADCOW - Montanans against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife - drafted a ballot initiative, I-143, that if passed will effectively throttle the elk-ranching industry here. It would ban captive trophy shooting and place a moratorium on issuing any licenses for new operations. Existing operations that could survive without trophy shooting could continue to operate.
"They can still sell that snake oil," says Gary Holmquist, MADCOW's chairman and primary energy source, referring to selling velvet antler. "They can harvest meat, sell breeding stock. But our initiative will bring a halt to canned shooting, which is an insult to all legitimate hunters, and an insult to these intelligent and beautiful animals."
Giving hunters a bad name
Holmquist, who lives in Lolo, Mont., is a retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel, who spends the fall months hunting elk with rifle and bow in the Bitterroot Mountains and Bob Marshall Wilderness.
"I have talked to people who believe that all hunters take part in these canned shoots. That's the image they have of hunting. It's disgusting, and it plays right into the hands of the people who hate hunting, and who hate the private ownership of firearms," says Holmquist.
The initiative was supported from the beginning by the Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Bowhunters Association, and Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society, a group that represents professional wildlife biologists. MADCOW volunteers collected over 29,000 signatures on their petition to place I-143 on the ballot, almost 10,000 more than is required by law.
"Obviously, the citizens want to have a say in this," says Holmquist. "Our wildlife is being placed at risk for the profits of these game ranchers, and then we're being told to pick up the tab." Of particular concern to both game ranchers and their opponents has been the emergence of chronic wasting disease on two elk ranches in Montana. Many people worry that it could pass from captive elk to wild elk and deer outside the fences, with devastating results. Holmquist estimates that over the past five years, state wildlife officials have spent almost $1 million monitoring the elk-ranching industry.
"That's money that comes from sportsmen," he says. "Public money is being spent to protect wildlife from an industry that makes a mockery of everything we believe in."
In September, the Montana Alternative Livestock Producers (MALP) filed a lawsuit against the state to have I-143 removed from the ballot, but Helena District Judge Jeffery Sherlock let the initiative remain. Shortly afterward, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, based in Missoula and representing over 125,000 members, broke a long-standing tradition of political neutrality and publicly supported I-143.
"We don't tell our members how to vote," said Rich Gordon, a spokesman for the Foundation, "and this is the first time we've ever supported a ballot initiative. But this is something so close to our hearts, and so close to the mission statement of the Elk Foundation."
A death blow?
In ruling in favor of I-143, Judge Sherlock noted that his decision would have no bearing on whether MALP or its members could bring a constitutional challenge against the initiative if it passes. And they will.
"I-143 is unconstitutional on several grounds," says MALP attorney Mark Taylor, of Helena. "I can't say for sure that MALP will challenge it on those grounds, but I know that some of the producers will. You can't treat business owners differently under the law, just because you don't like their business.
"Why is it that someone charging for trout fishing in ponds or lakes on private land is fine, but shooting elk or bison is out of the question?" he asks. "There's no rational distinction there, and you can't make one."
Taylor says he hopes voters will recognize that the initiative is going to hurt farming families. "I-143 will put 90 to 95 families out of business," he says. "Proponents say that they are not trying to close anybody down, but they are closing their markets, and that's the same thing." He also points out that the elk industry has spent over half a million dollars on chronic wasting disease research. "Meanwhile, our opponents have spent zero."
Craig Hayes of Paso Robles, Calif., is a hunt broker and the manager and designer of five fenced big-game ranches, two of which are in Montana. He says he wouldn't try to predict how Montanans will vote on I-143: "You would think that Montana would be the last bastion of private enterprise, but actually it's the worst state in the U.S. The intent of our opponents has been clear for a long time," he says. "They've used chronic wasting disease as a tool to hack away away at the industry, but they really want to deal us a death blow.
"I've opened a new ranch in Colorado, and business is good at my other places," he adds, "so I'm not too worried."
Hal Herring is a freelance writer in Corvallis, Montana.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Gary Holmquist at MADCOW, 13320 Sapphire Dr., Lolo, MT 59847 (406/273-7862); macow.org;
- Mark Taylor, attorney at law, MALP (Montana Alternative Livestock Producers), 139 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT 59601 (406/443-6820).
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Hal Herring