Mention the Division of Wildlife to a Colorado elk rancher and criticism comes easy. "They think we're a terrible disease threat to native wildlife," says Steve Wolcott, president of the North American Elk Breeders Association, "and that we're a bunch of crooks."
Mention elk ranching to a
wildlife biologist and watch a grimace form. "We should have
learned 100 years ago that commercial use of wildlife is a loser,"
says Jim Olterman, wildlife biologist for the state of
Game ranching is an old controversy in
the West. Elk, which require 40 percent less feed than cattle to
produce a pound of meat, are good business for ranchers. Cow elks
bring from $4,000 to $8,000 and a top bull can sell for $15,000. In
addition, Asian countries buy velvet antlers - at up to $90 a pound
- for medicinal purposes.
However, most state
wildlife agencies fear that elk ranching will inevitably lead to
disaster. Even a few escaped elk, biologists say, could wipe out
the West's native deer and elk populations through disease or
contamination of the gene pools. And if the wild herds were to go,
so would the region's multi-million-dollar hunting industry.
That led Utah and Wyoming to ban game ranching
years ago, and explains why wildlife agencies in both states
tightly regulate even the transportation of exotic species within
their boundaries. Montana's wildlife agency is also under heavy
pressure from environmentalists and the Montana Wildlife Federation
to ban the state's game ranching industry
But in Colorado, where the industry is
booming with 100 game ranches, the trend is in the other direction.
This spring the Colorado Elk Breeders Association pushed a bill
through the state legislature that transfers some jurisdiction over
elk ranching from the state Division of Wildlife (DOW) to the
Department of Agriculture.
The industry didn't
get completely free of the DOW. They had tried to do that with a
bill they had introduced this winter. It would have transferred all
jurisdiction to the state Department of Agriculture. That was
thwarted when the Parks and Wildlife Employee Association, a
private group made up of game wardens and park rangers, opposed the
measure and lobbied for the DOW to retain primary regulatory
After that battle, DOW executive
director Perry Olson and the elk breeders worked out a compromise.
The DOW kept management over fencing requirements, game-ranch
hunting and genetic testing.
But as of May 31,
the compromise legislation classifies domestic elk as "alternative
livestock" to be treated almost like cattle, rather than captive
wildlife. The Department of Agriculture now writes and handles all
regulations governing disease control. In addition, licensing,
inspections and primary enforcement authorities moved from the DOW
to the Brand Board, a division of the Department of Agriculture.
Its rules raise annual license fees to $300, and mandate tattoos on
each elk to ensure better
Wolcott, former president of the
Colorado Elk Breeders Association, says the association worked to
sever ties with the DOW because of what he called a long history of
harassment and prejudice. Until the late 1980s, few regulations
governed what was then a tiny industry. But one of the operations
caused trouble. Elk frequently escaped from a ranch in northeastern
Colorado and the rancher, who has since left the state, refused to
build strong fencing or buy a license.
incident led the Division of Wildlife and the Colorado Elk Breeders
Association in 1990 to work out tighter rules for fencing,
licensing, disease control and tagging. But Wolcott says many
within the Division of Wildlife still "think we are fencing in
Bambi" and treat elk operators as outlaws.
April, for example, a game warden shot an escaped cow elk worth
$8,000 near Crawford, Colo., without providing the owner, Mark
LeValley, 72-hour notice as required by law to retrieve his elk.
Ranchers also complain about wardens climbing fences to inspect
herds without notifying ranch owners.
Wildlife biologist John Seidel says LeValley is likely to sue and
the division may have to reimburse him. But Seidel also says
ranchers have a tendency to blow things out of
Wolcott says he thinks the new law
will stabilize the $5 million-a-year industry, which will also be a
net gain for the environment. Unlike cattle ranchers, says Wolcott,
elk ranchers do not need public grazing allotments. Even better, he
adds, with the efficiency of elk, ranchers can survive on a small
land base, helping to maintain open space instead of selling to
The DOW remains frustrated.
"We are not happy with the law," Olterman says, "but there's
nothing we can do about it. The potential threat for disease
transmission and cross-breeding is still there."
Seidel adds, "The law will only raise
bureaucracy another level. In the age of trying to have less
government, (game ranchers) have created more."
The state's wildlife biologists fear that if
bovine tuberculosis ever spread to wild populations from an escaped
infected elk, it would be impossible to eradicate. And if such a
scenario took place, Colorado's $250 million hunting industry would
In recent years, tuberculosis
outbreaks have not been uncommon. State biologists destroyed an
entire game ranch herd near Gunnison, Colo., in 1991, after the
animals tested positive for tuberculosis. According to Olterman, at
least two ranches are currently under
Biologists also say European red
deer, an elk subspecies domesticated long ago, may interbreed with
the state's wild herds. Last fall, Wyoming officials made an
unconfirmed report that an elk shot on the Wyoming side of the
border was an escaped, unregistered red deer hybrid from a Colorado
Colorado ranchers, however, say they
have made an extensive effort to fight the problems. Elk breeders
agreed to prohibit red deer several years ago, and all imported elk
are required to have disease and genetic tests before they can
enter the state. As a result, there are almost no domesticated red
deer in the state, and since 1992, over 90 percent of domestic elk
have been tested for TB. Ranchers also say cattle, which receive
little testing, are as much a tuberculosis threat to wild herds as
Despite the testing, Olterman says that
bringing elk into Colorado "is like playing Russian roulette."
Olterman says he is also concerned about ranchers luring wild elk
into captive herds. Since 1990, seven ranchers have been convicted
of illegally possessing wild elk. Last year, one rancher in
Cedaredge, Colo., baited 26 wild elk into his facility. He received
a $13,000 fine and his license was revoked by the
Jerry Perkins, vice president of the
Colorado Elk and Game Breeders Association, says thieves are
usually turned in by fellow ranchers because they have an unfair
competitive advantage. Of the seven theft cases in the last four
years, four incidents were reported by other
For more information contact the
Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216; or
North American Elk Breeders Association, P.O. Box 6, Paonia, CO
* Peter McBride and Carol Busch, HCN