January 30, 2023

North Dakota Also Facing Anti-Elk Farming/Hunting Groups

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Since last summer, much of my focus on elk farming and elk hunting on ranches has been focused in Idaho. The debate there seriously began back last August after some elk escaped from Rex Rammell’s Chief Joseph ranch. With unfounded fear of disease and gene contamination, then Governor Jim Risch ordered any and all escaped elk killed. Some in Idaho have taken this opportunity to begin an anti-rights march to put an end to elk farming and hunting on elk ranches.

This campaign is not relegated only to Idaho. Oregon has taken up the debate as well as North Dakota. Ken Wagenman, past president of North Dakota Elk Growers Association, submitted an article in the In-Forum News (free subscription) that helps to dismiss some of the lies being told about the elk industry.

Unfortunately in this debate, as with many debates, myths are perpetuated in order to embellish stories. Using tactics like instilling fear in the masses has always proven to be quite effective. It is time consuming and costly that individuals have to counter inaccurate claims and quell fears in order to protect their businesses.

I would encourage all readers to visit the site and read his entire article. Wagenman addresses three areas in which those wanting to ban elk farming and elk hunting on ranches, speak of regularly – disease, genetics and ethics. First, disease.

Disease has been and always will be of great concern to livestock producers and wildlife managers. It is no secret that occasionally disease shows up in both sectors of the animal world. Some would like you to believe game farms are teeming with disease and are a grave threat to wildlife. Here is the truth.

North Dakota has had domesticated elk for more than 40 years. Today we have yet to diagnose our first case of chronic wasting disease after testing literally thousands of these elk over the last eight years. The elk ranchers also adhere to a strict system of testing for tuberculosis and brucellosis, which has rewarded them with a clean bill of health.

We will never eliminate disease, especially in the wild. But cooperation between North Dakota Board of Animal Health and North Dakota Game and Fish has served us well in keeping our landscape disease-free. Farmed elk do not pose any greater threat of disease than do other forms of domestic livestock, especially since they share many of the same diseases.

Genetics is another topic used to instill fear in the people. Many are led to believe that domestic elk are bred with other related species like red deer in order to grow bigger antlers for the sole purpose of trophy hunting. Once again Wagenman sets the record straight.

The genetics inside the fence are the same, if not better, than those outside the fence.

Again, the truth is elk producers certainly select their breeding herd from the heartiest, largest, best-producing genetics available to them. This has resulted in the production of bulls that really wow the hunting public. This is not “genetic engineering” but simply selective breeding that demonstrates the true potential of these majestic beasts. In contrast to that, you have a wild herd that has also been genetically modified. Only in this case, the result is the opposite. For many years trophy hunters have been allowed to harvest the largest bulls from the herd, allowing the lesser bulls to do the bulk of the breeding. The net result of this is a wild herd that doesn’t have the genetic potential to produce what we see coming out of domestic herds. This has also contributed to the demand for trophy bulls on game preserves.

Regulations adopted by states can dictate the genetic purity of any and all elk allowed to be brought into the state from outside for the purpose of elk farming.

Lastly, Wagenman addresses hunting ethics and the hunting ranch issue. A more difficult task to do because ethics is a perceived notion that comes from an individual’s background and beliefs, most of which began at a very young age. Wagenman points out much of the double standards and hypocrisy that is evident in this issue.

Hunter ethics is the other great debate. The definition of these terms is widely varied. Many hunters will use every legal means available to them to increase their odds of success. This may include technology, firearms, clothing, and even dogs and baiting. Others would argue in favor of more traditional methods, such as a long bow, to increase the challenge of the hunt.

I often hear the excuse that preserve hunting may turn the nonhunting public against all hunters. My response is the perception of the nonhunting public of hunters has nothing to do with preserve hunting. Certainly free-chase hunters are responsible to the public as to how they harvest the public’s resource. However, the animals in a hunting preserve are no more the public’s resource than are my house, my car or any other livestock.

I would argue that we certainly harvest our animals in a timely and humane fashion, often much more so than what goes on with free-chase hunting. We do not allow animals to be wounded and suffer for days or weeks on end.

While Wagenman addresses the issue of ethics when it comes to hunting ranches, he also touches on the property rights issue. An individual has every right to believe that hunting on an elk ranch is unethical. They also have the choice to not go there to hunt but does this individual’s belief give them the right to take away another’s rights? While those opposed to elk farming and hunting on ranches make every attempt to persuade the public that elk farming posses a public hazard, they have yet to provide any real truth to their argument to prove their case.

Ethics is a sticky road but it should be pointed out that it is also very personal and should be left up to the individual. Again, how is hunting within the confines of a ranch a public safety issue? If you don’t want to call it hunting, then don’t call it that. Call it whatever you will. It is also your choice to not go there to hunt as it is the choice of others who may choose to do so. After all, it’s not like everyone can get an elk license each season to hunt elk. Hunters sometimes wait for years for an opportunity. Some choose not to wait.

For those who worry about the bad name that hunters will get because of ranch hunting, I think that considering the very small number who choose to hunt that way, it will have little if any affect. There is far more poaching, baiting, driving, drinking alcohol, trespassing and a host of other issues that are giving hunting and hunters more of a bad name than your so-called “high-fence” hunting.

To set the record straight for those who don’t know. I have never hunted on a ranch and at this point in my life have no intentions whatsoever to do so. It is nothing that interests me but I have no idea what my future holds. It is my choice not to go to a ranch and hunt. In my own mind, hunting on some ranches may not be hunting in its purist form but I believe it is a rights issue – a property rights issue that is harming no one.

Are there abuses? You bet and they need to be addressed. I think the industry needs minimum standards that address humane treatment of elk and I would not be opposed to the setting of a minimum acreage per elk hunted standard for hunting ranches but am in no way a proponent of taking away the rights of hard working people who want to farm elk and/or offer some of them to be taken by hunting or shooting, if you will.

Wagenman asks at the end of his article what I have asked myself several times. If we are to stop the farming of elk, then we must also stop the farming of deer, bison, pheasant, quail, fish and all other species that hunters and fishermen seek. There is no difference. All species of wildlife run a risk of carrying and spreading disease and wildlife departments in every state have practiced genetic engineering in order to make a better, bigger, fish with more fight making it more fun to catch. Why is this any different than raising an elk?

As hunters we should closely examine the precedents that we seek to establish. What you think might be a great idea today will come back and haunt you in the coming years. For the purists who seek to practice the sport in a way that more closely pits man against beast, I admire your patience, skill and determination. For the person who elects to take an elk within the fences of a game ranch, I respect your choice knowing that it has no ill effect on me or my family or the general public at large.

Tom Remington