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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Elk Farming or Hunting?

Air Date: Week of

Domesticated elk at Black Canyon Ranch. ((c) Guy Hand Productions)

The elk, an icon of the West, is increasingly being raised on private ranches in Idaho. Elk meat is a popular menu item in restaurants and some ranches allow hunting. But many hunters and some wildlife experts object to confined elk. Producer Guy Hand reports.



CURWOOD: Back here in the U.S. the bugling of wild elk is part of what makes the mountain West so special. It reassures many that the West still has room for at least some of nature's most majestic and untamed creatures. But some of the elk are now caught behind fences. There are 78 elk ranches and hunting preserves in the state of Idaho, alone.
And in the summer of 2006, when a large number of farm-raised elk escaped from a ranch in eastern Idaho it sparked concerns about the mixing of domestic herds with the wild. Critics of the ranches fear the domestic elk could spread disease and alter the wild gene pool. And some of them want Idaho to ban private elk preserves. Producer Guy Hand picks up the story in Boise, Idaho.

HAND: When talk began of outlawing private elk ranches in Idaho last fall, Randy King, executive chef at Crane Creek Country Club in Boise, put together a news conference to show that he and many other chefs support the young industry. Restaurants can't serve wild game, so without domestic elk, King says he wouldn't be able to serve one of the region's most popular foods.

KING: I don't think I've talked to a single chef yet that wants to limit the amount of food that we can provide to our customers. I have not yet spoken to a chef yet that wanted to say, yeah, ban elk-ranching in the state. Not a single one.

HAND: Nearly every northwestern state except Idaho has banned or severely limited the raising of domestic elk.

KING: That's why in my opinion it's so important for Idaho to keep elk-ranching because we are providing a resource, Black Canyon Elk Ranch in particular, the one that I'm really here to support, provides elk to eight different states. They personally go down to Wyoming over to Jackson Hole, over to Oregon and into Montana

HAND: Kristy and Roy Sternes own Black Canyon Elk Ranch.


HAND: On a snowy afternoon in December, Kristy Sternes helps an agricultural inspector count and catalogue their elk herd near Emmett.

K. STERNES: Well, we're working the elk; we're doing part of our annual inventory and inspection by the Idaho Department of Ag. It's where we verify all of our elk to make sure who's here and their I.D. tags, make sure everything’s properly I.D.'d that they've got their metal tags and their color tags. We do it once a year.

HAND: Many of the elk that escaped from a ranch in eastern Idaho last summer didn't have those mandatory visible I.D. tags. That made them much harder to find. And because the owner recaptured many of the animals before authorities could count them, no one knows how many escaped. About twenty are still unaccounted for, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture. Yet, Kristy Sternes believes the domestic elk industry in Idaho is well-regulated.

Kristy and Roy Sternes, owners of the Black Canyon Ranch. ((c) Guy Hand Productions)

K. STERNES: Elk are tested for chronic wasting disease, which is the equivalent of mad cow in cattle. And every cow is not even tested for mad cow in the United States upon slaughter. Every elk, however, is. One hundred percent of our elk have to be tested for chronic wasting disease and there's never been a positive one in any of our Idaho herds.

HAND: Domestic elk are also tested for brucellosis and tuberculosis but given all this testing, I asked Kristy why they bothered to raise elk.

K. STERNES: They're just majestic animals, different from the average livestock, and it's like having an "animal planet" out on your own farm, so…

HAND: But it's that mingling of the wild and domestic, the natural and the farmed, that worries those that oppose to elk ranching.

BARTON: Yes, game farms are people's livelihoods but their livelihoods do not touch what Idaho stands to lose if chronic wasting disease wipes out our herds.

HAND: Cherie Barton is with the Idaho Wildlife Federation, one of dozens of organizations that believe that last summer's elk ranch escape was not an anomaly. Besides that escape two hundred and twenty-one domestic elk have broken out of elk ranches in Idaho over the last ten years. And Barton fears all those escapees could not only threaten wild herds with diseases like chronic wasting, but also with unnatural genetic traits that ranchers breed into domestic elk—like massive antlers.

BARTON: If you like to hike and you like to see the animals in the wild. Or you backpack, or you raft, or you use the rivers, canoeing, anything that you're out in the wild and you like to see wild game, you need to help with this issue.


HAND: Many Idaho hunters agree. It's a bitter cold, cloudless day in January. And on the steps of the state capitol building, Mark Bell, of the Idaho Sportsmen's Caucus is addressing a couple of hundred camo-wearing hunters.

BELL: Idaho is one of the most world-recognized hunting destinations. We have to protect that.

HAND: The Caucus represents about 30 hunting groups and they too think domestic elk could threaten the region's wild herds. Mark Bell:

BELL: If you've ever seen an animal with chronic wasting disease, it's almost pathetic. They jump up and down, they have no sense of control, they fall, they spit and drool, and pretty soon they just die. It is tragic.

HAND: The fact, is chronic wasting disease already exists in wild elk as close by as Wyoming, so transmission could go either way. Critics acknowledge this but they think that elk ranches could speed up the spread of the disease. Yet many say the emotional fuel driving this whole debate isn’t just the fear of disease or genetic impurity, but a profound distaste, for fenced-in elk hunting preserves, what some call "canned hunts," or even "snuff farms." Although most of the 78 elk farms in Idaho raise elk only for meat, much like cattle ranches raise cattle for beef, there are about fifteen operations offering elk for sport hunting.

Domesticated elk at Black Canyon Ranch.((c) Guy Hand Productions)

Hunters can pay more than ten thousand dollars to shoot elk on one of these confined preserves. Mark Bell says the operations simply aren’t compatible with the ethic hunters call “fair chase.”

BELL: And as ethical hunters, the challenge for you and I to go out and harvest an animal in their environment, that's the challenge. I really don't see much of a challenge inside of a fenced compound. That's not hunting and shouldn't be referred to as hunting, it's killing.

HAND: But Ted Rae, an elk breeder speaking at that November news conference, argues that confined hunts have benefits.

RAE: By offering an alternative to our wild herds, we actually create an abundance for everybody. That abundance is created by lessening the demand in impact on our wild resources, on our public resources.

HAND: Some, like Rae, say that the reintroduction of wolves plus poor public land management has caused wild elk numbers to drop. Rae believes private hunting preserves are a logical alternative—and elk ranching a new kind of agriculture.

RAE: It's not just left up to nature, and whether or not that animal can escape a wolf, but that it is allowed to blossom and be fruitful . . .

HAND: Rae likens breeding domestic elk to gardening.

RAE: I think of it often times as finding a wild flower and picking that wild flower and bringing it home and putting it in a pot. You take those seeds and you harvest those seeds and you plant em’ in your garden and you raise those and you raise them again and then some day you plant those again in the wild. It's going full circle.

HAND: It's precisely that "going full circle"—the intentional or accidental release of highly bred, domestic elk into the wild—that opponents of elk ranches and hunting preserves fear most. Idaho state Senator David Langhorst, speaking on the capitol steps, hopes new legislation will plug-up what he sees as a too-porous border between domestic and wild elk.

LANGHORST: There’s wide agreement in the legislature, if not to ban game farms, that at least, we need some kind of licensing with teeth so that bad actors can be put out of business if they need to be. So, to me, if we can ban canned hunts, and minimize the risk at the other farms, I think that that would go a long way to fixing the problem. Now, ah, that's just me. There are many members of the public that I hear from that want the entire practice banned.

HAND: So what are you putting in there now?

KING: A little thyme, a little rosemary, kind of give it the rustic feel.

HAND: Chef Randy King hovers over a domestic elk chop he's sautéing in his Crane Creek Country Clubkitchen.

KING: People come here for the wild experience, for the elk, for the game, so to not be able to put that on the menu, that's ridiculous in my opinion.
Basically, any animal that we have that’s domesticated was once wild. What about the pheasants, the farm raised buffalo, what about the farm raised trout, what about the farm raised sturgeon, what about the farm raised alligators, farm raised ostriches? All those things are wild animals that nobody seems to think twice about, you know. As soon as you've got an elk behind a pen, you know it's a big majestic animal, I can understand the concern but where's the line, where do you get the happy medium at?

HAND: So, where do you draw that line between nature and agriculture? It's a question societies have asked since the first cultivated field, the first tamed animal. Now it's the Idaho legislature's turn. And if it doesn't draw a hard line between the farm and the forest, elk ranching opponents in Idaho say they'll introduce a citizen's initiative that will.
For Living On Earth, I'm Guy Hand in Boise.

KING: Hey Chris! Can you bring me those morsels?



Idaho Wildlife Federation

New West: "Idaho Lawmakers Focus on Elk Farms"


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