On a Montana ranch, big game and big problems

  • Earl Butler feeds elk at Big Velvet Elk Ranch

    photo courtesy Big Velvet Ranch
  • Antlers are sawn from bull elk at Alberta, Canada, game ranch

    Albuquerque Tribune
  • The bloody aftermath

    Albuquerque Tribune photo

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.

The 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.

"All of 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 do."

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 market.

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 property.

"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 awry.

"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."

A 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.

Nine-foot-high barbed 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 collapsing.

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 head.

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.

The shoot-for-pay 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 hunters.

Building tension

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 head.

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 says.

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 expansion.

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 December.

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 organized.

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."

Zackheim 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 demand.

Running afoul of the law

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.

But Wallace 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."

State officials 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 deer.

Risk of disease

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 prevent."

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 Dakota.

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 this report.

You can ...

* 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 406/721-6705;

* Call Tony Jewett of the Montana Wildlife Federation at 406/449-7604 or Terry Klampe in Florence, Mont., at 406/273-2015.

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