Elk ranchers escape from Colorado's Division of Wildlife

  • Elk gather near Steve Wolcott's pickup at feeding time near Paonia

    Peter McBride

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 Colorado.

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 entirely.

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 authority.

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 record-keeping.

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.

That 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.

Last 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.

Division of 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 proportion.

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 housing developers.

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 be ruined.

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 quarantine.

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 game ranch.

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 elk.

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 DOW.

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 ranchers.

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 81428.

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