Born caged: A new 'wild' West

  • LOCKED IN: Game farm elk

    Albuquerque Tribune photo
 

I've tried to put my finger on the time when wild animals ceased being public property in North America and entered the domain of chattel.

It isn't an easy date to find. It's not like a geologic event, when you can point a finger at a volcano and say: "Yes, that's when the trouble started."

No, private ownership of wild animals has evolved so quietly that it's just about gone unnoticed. For all its dedication to endangered species, the federal government has let its game animals slip away behind a giant fence. U.S. Fish and Wildlife could not, for example, tell me how many game ranches exist in this country. But with a few exceptions, every state in the Union has legalized game ranching.

Game ranches raise wild animals to satisfy fashion and gullets or, as in the case of powdered elk horn sales to oriental markets, to bring back life to "withered stalks." These critters usually run in the higher end of the animal kingdom: ostrich, alligator, bear, bison, and especially deer and elk. A few ranches run canned-hunt operations. Wildlife has become a privately owned commodity.

I can hear the sputtering of various wildlife agencies who will quickly refer to dusty law books giving states the power to regulate game for the public good. But public wildlife practice, in its current watered-down condition, looks best on paper. It's been pointed out that game management is a bit like business franchising: the state owns the animal in title only; the actual use is leased out to someone else, the landowner.

The landowner who controls the habitat - and access to that habitat - controls the game. And nothing controls access like a 10-foot fence. But is it fair to put this charge of domestication on the builder of that enclosure? The English codified the concept of controlling access to the habitat in 1365 with a series of laws. It's remarkable, really, with so much of American law rooted in English jurisprudence, that we didn't emulate Britain's game rules. Instead, America took a different path and institutionalized public hunting.

Since colonial times, wild animals in America have belonged to the public, not the landowner. Some of this country's earliest court cases spelled out just who owned what when it came to game. Public ownership worked well for a long time. A primarily agricultural nation that revered the concept of self-reliance, we accepted hunters as part of the social fabric. Those feeling confined could go to the great commons of the West and, before market hunting took its toll, find all the game they needed.

But market hunting was part of the problem. In tracing the steps to private ownership, we could point to the supplier of venison and tongue or to the robe hunter who, facing the prospect of a dwindling buffalo herd, roped a calf in the 1880s and hawked it to an entrepreneur in the East as a novelty. Culpable, perhaps, is the brotherhood of brawny souls who captured bear and cougar for zoos. The Inupiat of Alaska have raised imported reindeer for over 100 years. Hell, why not blame the federal government? Again. You could "buy" elk from Yellowstone Park until 1970. Writer Robert Hoskins has suggested that animal-rights folks are liable, for the only possible consequence of animal rights is the domestication of wild animals.

Perhaps we will never find the exact date when animals lost their wild status in this country. But a serious impoverishment occurred when the first state legislature, tired of trying to penalize those caught chasing deer and elk into enclosures, said, "OK, we capitulate, you can now own these animals outright." The curious matter is, I spoke to half a dozen experts in the field of natural resource property rights, historians, economists, and lawyers, mavens on the question of "who owns wildlife." Not one of them could recall the first state to throw away its public trust of wildlife.

It's an act so regrettable that the moment of trauma is forgotten, as it sometimes is for victims of abuse. But it marked a point in this country when we gave up something, a turning away from a defining characteristic of American life.

It's easy to construe this as mawkish sentiment. But we've lost something singular: our rare status as a wealthy nation, long attentive to property rights, that still protected animals. We've had a history of putting the animal first, commerce second. But game ranching, like the feral animals it domesticates, has downed this legal fence and thrives. Ownership of animals represents a return to feudalism.

It's convenient to see my opinion as a manifestation of that brew simmering below the surface of animal ownership: class rage. The question of who owns wild animals polarizes the West. It boils over at the slightest rise in temperature, permeating every aspect of the issue: Hunting. Access. Land ownership. License fees. Game numbers. And it's mostly the have-nots who are doing the hollering. The haves, in contrast, are enjoying a heyday. As well they might, for there are many good things to say about private hunting: better feed, superior habitat, and, to some degree, helping the landowner diversify income. This point of helping landowners has only limited validity, however. As the raison d'etre of Western ranches changes from commodity to recreation, the last virtue the new owners can plead is poverty. On the contrary, they buy the ranch for its hunting and fishing. Making the mortgage payments is not a problem.

But this drive towards privatization breeds out the very attribute implied in the Endangered Species Act and most coveted by photographer and hunter alike: wildness. That's already happened, more than once. Six years ago, blood samples from an elk shot outside Elliston, Mont., revealed crossbreeding with a European red deer that escaped from a game farm. How many times did this elk mate? Some say: so what? Ducks crossbreed in the wild; so do deer. Nature doesn't keep track of genetics the way Gregor Mendel, eyesight failing, pampered his peas. Nature keeps itself alive by the ruthless employment of hybrid vigor. What does it matter if it's man or evolutionary fluke that creates genetic change?

But the question begets another, this one more profound: change for what? Naturally occurring genetic change makes an animal fit for adversity, one that can sustain droughts, disease or food shortages and still have enough stamina to create and/or carry offspring. That's what wildness is all about, having animals bred for their own life, not the husbandry of man. No matter if the game ranch is for horn or hunting, behind the fence, owners manipulate diet and genetics for better meat or bigger rack.

In going from public ownership to game ranching, we go from participation, whether hunting or bird watching - to something perilously close to domination. This is not an argument against being an artificer or architect; that's what we do in protecting habitat. But the intent in habitat protection is to minimize man's influence. However, all you have to do is go to a bull sale and see those blocky black Angus that can hardly walk and you know that game ranching breeds out the wildness.

I've wondered what Thoreau would have to say about game ranching. Now young Henry David dabbled in hyperbole and professed many things about himself that weren't strictly true. He espoused vegetarianism, but when someone asked the writer Emerson what dish Thoreau preferred, Emerson said "the nearest one." Furthermore, contrary to popular myth, Thoreau did not live a life of solitary self-abnegation at Walden. He often skipped home on weekends to eat his mother's doughnuts and have her do his laundry. But Thoreau was capable of epiphany. One of my favorites pertained to wild game. In 1854, he wrote "... I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw ..."

Somehow, I don't think he'd feel the same about a game farm elk.

Samuel Western writes and guides hunters in Bighorn, Wyoming.

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