Rancher goes down kicking

Montana's fight over game farms isn't over yet

 

DARBY, Mont. - Millionaire and elk rancher Len Wallace didn't make his fortune by graciously conceding to his critics. Wallace is a gruff, middle-aged, self-taught engineer with a reputation as a relentless entrepreneur, impatient with those who get in the way of his ambitious plans. He is also notorious for intimidating officials who try to enforce what he sees as bothersome ordinances that delay his plans. Even his faxes, usually typed in capital letters, seem to holler at their recipients.

Wallace made millions in the computer business before he began raising elk in 1991 for commercial hunts on his sprawling Big Velvet Ranch just outside Darby, Mont. (HCN, 11/10/97: On a Montana ranch, big game and big problems). The ranch is home to, in his words, "the largest tuberculosis-free ... elk herd on the planet," representing "10 percent of the ag income in Ravalli County."

But last November, just as this new venture was becoming successful, Montana residents voted to outlaw commercial hunts on game farms (HCN, 10/23/00: Montana hunters blast game farms). The passage of Initiative 143 was a testament to the high value residents place on all things wild. No one fought harder to defeat the initiative than Wallace.

But even now, seven months after the initiative passed, Wallace refuses to go down without one more fight. This time he's brought the Crow tribe of southeastern Montana into it.

A kick in the teeth

In late April, Wallace announced that because I-143 made elk ranching a losing proposition, he would give his entire herd to the Crow Indians, who would set the 675 elk free on their reservation in southeast Montana.

"Now," he told reporters, parroting the slogan of I-143 backers, "they'll run wild and free."

For Montana officials, Wallace's move was a kick in the teeth. State law doesn't allow ranchers to free captive elk because of the risk of spreading ailments such as Chronic Wasting Disease to wild herds (HCN, 12/18/00: Cure or curse?). Wallace did an end run around the rule by going to the Crow tribe, which is a sovereign nation and exempt from state law.

On May 2, Wallace off-loaded the first 68 animals of his herd on the Crow reservation. Those animals now roam free in the Pryor and Big Horn Mountains. But before he could send any more, a state judge ordered Wallace to cease. "The truck got out of here about 1 o'clock," Wallace says, "and by 4 o'clock there was a restraining order."

Montana District Court Judge Dorothy McCarter said the animals may not be moved anyplace other than another state-licensed game farm to quell the potential spread of disease to the wild. A week later, the court order became a permanent injunction.

Tough times for game farms

Wallace now complains he's paralyzed: He's prohibited from selling or giving away his elk and he can't slaughter them for meat, either.

But Gary Holmquist of Lolo, who spearheaded the drive to outlaw canned hunts, says Wallace "is full of crud." Wallace could give or sell the elk to another licensed game farm for breeding stock, meat or antlers, he says.

True enough, says Tim Feldner, manager of the commercial wildlife-permitting program for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "The only thing slowing him down is that he can't have canned hunts," says Feldner.

Hunting, however, is crucial to Wallace and other Montana elk farmers. The elk industry, it seems, is going the way of llama farms and emu ranches, which created sparks initially, but fell flat when ranchers realized the markets for such animals were limited. In 1996 the price of a breeding elk cow peaked at $15,000. Today that same animal fetches just $3,000.

"It's tough times (for elk ranchers), no doubt about it," says Feldner.

But Len Wallace hasn't given up. He recently appealed the lower court decision to the Montana Supreme Court and used the occasion to blast his fellow Montanans one more time. "I-143 is a dishonest taking of private property. If you voted for it, you were either confused or support a dishonest measure, brought by dishonest people who lied in the voter pamphlet, in the newspaper, on radio and in television."

Gary Holmquist's group, Sportsmen for I-143, and several other conservation groups have filed as interveners on the state's behalf.

The author writes from Hamilton, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Gary Holmquist of Sportsmen for I-143, 406/273-7862;
  • Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, special licensing office, Helena, 406/444-2950, www.fwp.state.mt.us.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Carlotta Grandstaff