Legislature likely to debate whether shooter bull operations belong in Idaho
SQUIRREL — Days after Gov. Jim Risch ordered a special hunt to kill domestic elk that escaped from Rex Rammell's ranch in eastern Idaho, Brad Horner was inside Rammell's Chief Joseph hunting preserve, shooting a huge, six-point bull elk.
Horner is a veteran hunter from McMinnville, Ore., with a room full of trophies from around the world, including Africa. He didn't say how much he paid Rammell, who charges up to $6,000 for a trophy elk. But like any hunter, he was eager to share the story of his successful hunt.
"It took 15 minutes," Horner said. "I shot him at 200 yards."
Rammell's escaped elk and the ease in which a hunter can pay for the privilege of killing one of Idaho's most prized big game animals has hunters, legislators and governor candidates questioning whether "shooter bull" operations belong in Idaho.
But elk ranchers say the contro-
versial hunts are vital to the elk ranching industry and are worth about $20 million annually in economic impact to the state.
The controversy also is pitting hunters who pursue wild animals using fair-chase methods against elk ranch operators who offer guaranteed kills.
The debate probably will carry over into the Legislature this winter.
"Idahoans like real hunting," said Sen. David Langhorst, D-Boise. He plans to introduce a bill to ban shooter bull operations in Idaho.
Langhorst spent most of his free time this month bowhunting for elk in the Sawtooths.
"We have mountains and wild, roaming herds and public lands to pursue those animals in a fair-chase situation," he said.
New to the West
Big-game hunting ranches have been popular in Texas for decades. Hunters can shoot North American big game as well as transplanted animals from Africa, Europe and Asia.
But so-called "canned hunts" have been slow to move West, essentially because they are outlawed in most Western states. Of Idaho's neighboring states, only Utah allows them.
In 2000, Montana ended elk hunting ranches through the citizen's initiative process, because people considered the hunts unethical, and they wanted to protect native elk from disease.
According to the Idaho Department of Agriculture, Idaho has 78 private elk ranches, and 15 of them offer hunting.
Vital to the elk ranch industry
Elk antlers are commonly sold for medicinal uses, especially for traditional Asian medicine. But in 2001, Korea banned the importation of North American elk antlers after outbreaks of chronic wasting disease, a lethal brain disease that is difficult if not impossible to eradicate.
When the Korean market closed, many elk ranchers turned to shooter bull operations to make up for lost revenue.
Elk ranchers often take the antlers off their younger bulls to supply the velvet market, then sell their older bulls to hunters.
"We've had to develop our own markets, and the shooter bull industry is one of those, and that's why it's vital to us," said Gary Queen, president of the Idaho Elk Breeders Association.
Queen said hunters spend about $3.5 million annually at shooter bull operations in the state, which generates an estimated $20 million through the Idaho economy.
Walter Sturgis of Meridian opened his elk hunting ranch after the Korean ban.
Sturgis said he partnered with Bill Davison, who owns property in Prairie, and they started their elk hunting operation as a way to sell excess bulls and to use bulls from fellow elk ranchers.
A bull elk sold for a private-land hunt is typically worth more than twice what it could be sold for slaughter, Sturgis said. One of his elk is worth about $900 if sold for meat. But he averages about $3,000 per elk killed by a hunter at his ranch. Sturgis said he gets $1,100 for a cow elk. His top trophy bull sold for $8,475 because hunters pay more for elk with larger antlers.
A guaranteed hunt
Wild elk are one of the West's toughest hunting challenges. They roam over huge expanses of rugged terrain and tend to avoid roads and humans.
Last year, nearly four out of five of the 95,733 Idaho elk hunters went home empty-handed. Even in the best hunting units, only a third of the hunters typically will bag an elk. When they do, it usually involves hours of grueling effort to get the heavy animals out of the woods.
Some people aren't physically able to hunt wild elk, or don't have the time or expertise, so they choose a private elk hunting operation that guarantees them a bull and packs and packages it for them after it's shot.
Sturgis said most of his clients come from California or from the East. He has hosted hunters on their first hunts, older hunters who can no longer withstand the rigors of a wild elk hunt, and others who just want an easier elk hunt.
Tracy Garske, 37, runs a road construction company in Seattle. He's killed two bulls in two years on Sturgis' ranch and plans to come back this fall for a third. It took him half a day to kill his first bull and two days to get the other.
"This is more my style," Garske said. "I don't have a lot of time. This is real convenient and handy."
He said even though the elk are inside a fence, "You still have to hunt for them, it's not a turkey shoot."
But he admits it's not fair chase, defined by the Boone and Crockett Club as "the ethical, sportsmanlike, and lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals."
"It doesn't bother me none," Garske said. "My opinion of that is, if you don't like it, go elsewhere."
Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded in 1887 by Theodore Roosevelt, opposes canned hunts because it considers them unethical, and the club does not allow any animals taken on high-fenced enclosures into its record books.
'Custom-made for headaches'
While shooter bull operations involve privately owned animals on private property, they do not take place in a vacuum.
To mimic a hunt, the animals need to appear semi-wild and be allowed to roam over an area that replicates wild lands. That usually puts them in wild elk country and makes domestic and wild elk more likely to interact when a domestic elk escapes or a wild elk gets into the pen.
Both F&G and the elk industry fear that diseases could be transmitted between the two populations, but the agency and elk breeders are bitterly divided over whether domestic elk are more likely to infect wild elk, or vice versa.
F&G officials also want to maintain the genetic diversity within wild elk herds, and they don't want domestic animals interbreeding with their wild counterparts.
"We like to keep our wild, natural elk's gene pool intact," said Jim Unsworth, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife bureau chief. "They're unique, and we want to keep them unique."
Rammell's escaped animals have been the most visible and dramatic case, with dozens of elk running wild, hunters and nearby landowners shooting them and Rammell threatening to sue the hunters and the state for damages.
But Rammell's situation isn't the only one this month. F&G reported eight domestic elk roaming free near Aberdeen, and two European fallow deer escaped from a ranch near Chubbuck.
In southeast Idaho, former professional football star Rulon Jones got a conditional-use permit in Bingham County to open a new shooter bull operation shortly after wild deer, elk and moose got into his pen in a similar high-fence ranch in Utah.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has ordered those animals killed to prevent diseases from spreading between wild and domestic animals. The agency intends to seek compensation for the public loss of wild game.
Idaho F&G officials are facing a similar problem at Jones' newest hunting ranch near Blackfoot.
F&G has been unable to remove wild animals from Jones' 2,000-acre high-fence enclosure. F&G personnel or public hunters will have to kill deer, elk and moose in the pen during special hunts when Jones allows it.
Unlike Rammell, who rebuffed state efforts to regulate his former ranch and at one time racked up $750,000 in fines, Jones is cooperating with F&G to remove wildlife from his penned enclosure, said Mark Gamblin, F&G's southeast region supervisor.
By state law, wild and domestic big game animals must be kept separate to prevent the possible spread of disease, which means any wild animals must be killed if they enter an enclosure with domestic elk.
Under F&G rules, wild big game animals cannot be hunted inside a penned enclosure, so either F&G officials must drive the animals out and kill them, or allow hunters in on special hunts for the sole purpose of killing the wild animals. F&G gets landowners' permission before they hold such hunts.
Jones' property is in high-elevation country that is steep, rugged and heavily timbered.
"It's the most challenging shooter bull operation we've had to work with for purposes of getting public wildlife out," Gamblin said. "It was a futile effort. You can't just drive wild animals out of an enclosure like that. We're very confident there are still deer, elk and moose in that pen."
Gamblin said F&G has had to respond numerous times as wild animals inside elk ranches, and "escaped domestic elk is all too common as well."
Put large elk ranches in native deer and elk habitat where snowdrifts bridge high fences and windblown timber breaks them down, and you have a situation that is "custom made for headaches," Gamblin said.
Unlike Utah, Idaho has no laws that allow the state to receive compensation from elk ranchers for the loss of public wildlife. Nor does the state charge for F&G efforts to retrieve escaped elk.
Sportsmen dollars for game farm elk
F&G receives no money from elk farm operators or their clients because shooting an elk on a game farm does not require a hunting license or an elk tag.
F&G officials say the agency spends tens of thousands of dollars annually dealing with private elk ranches, but there are no exact cost figures available.
It's hunters and anglers who buy licenses and tags who pick up the tab for F&G's efforts.
"Sportsmen's dollars have been spent and are being spent as we speak, but we don't have any choice," F&G director Steve Huffaker said. "We're trying to protect the sportsmen's elk."
A gathering legislative storm
The controversy over elk ranches spilled over into the gov- ernor's race when Rammell said that if Congressman Butch Otter were governor, he wouldn't have ordered Rammell's elk to be killed.
Rammell also said that if Otter were elected, Otter would compensate him for his elk.
Otter said he supported Risch's decision to have Rammell's escaped elk killed, but he's sent a mixed message on shooter bull operations.
"My position has never been to seek their closure," Otter said in a news release. "However, I would support the Legislature if it came to that conclusion based on the potential threat to our wild elk herd."
Otters' opponent, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady, said he opposed elk-hunting ranches. Brady held a news conference in Boise this week with former F&G commissioners to emphasize that he thinks the state should ban canned hunts.
In the 2005 session, legislators considered expanding game farms and limiting F&G's ability to deal with escaped animals.
The House passed and the Senate narrowly defeated the bill that would have expanded game farms to allow private ownership of mule deer, white-tailed deer and moose.
That bill, which elk ranchers supported, also would have prevented the special hunt that authorizes F&G and hunters to kill escaped elk.
Sen. David Langhorst introduced a bill in 2005 that would have banned the importation into Idaho of domestic cervidae, which includes all members of the deer family.
That bill never made it out of committee and was defeated by a party-line vote of the Republican majority.
Langhorst said the controversy surrounding Rammell's and Jones' operations will focus legislative attention on shooter bull operations.
"I am getting indications a lot of eyes have been opened," Langhorst said.
Langhorst said protecting Idaho's wild elk herds is a nonpartisan issue.
And he praised Risch for taking quick action in ordering Rammell's escaped elk to be killed. He said his bill will have sponsors from both parties.
Langhorst said if people want to spend thousands of dollars to hunt big game in pens, they can go to other states.
"Let the fat cats go to Texas," he said.
To offer story ideas or comments, contact reporter Roger Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 373-6615.
Statesman reporter Rocky Barker contributed to this story.