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Law Gives Elk Hunters a Free Shot

November 24, 2001|From Associated Press

DARBY, Mont. — For five days, Ruth Thorning's phone hasn't stopped ringing. Even at home--at midnight--the game farm business manager is getting phone calls from people wanting a chance to kill an elk, free.

"I've got six lines in the office, and there were a couple days this week where all six were lit up at once," Thorning, business manager at the Big Velvet Ranch near Darby, said Friday. "They're calling me at home too, waking me up in the middle of the night."

The ranch, citing a voter-approved law banning game farms from charging fees to kill elk, says it is going out of business, and its owners say they must eliminate their herd of 800 elk.

Unable to charge fees for elk hunting, the ranch's debts have been growing. Big Velvet's feed bill alone tops $300,000 a year, Thorning said.

Big Velvet owners Len and Pam Wallace began running radio ads about a week ago, saying their only choice under the new law was to let people who wanted to kill elk do so free.

The response has been more than they expected. By Thanksgiving, more than 2,000 people, some from as far east as New York, had called, Thorning said. Friday morning, the phone in her office was still ringing. One day this week, trucks were lined up for a half-mile at the ranch's entrance, the occupants hoping for a chance to kill one of the elk, she said.

"All the elk are spoken for," Thorning said. "We don't want any more calls."

Thorning said the week's worth of killing has not been pleasant for her and other ranch employees.

"The folks who come out here have been very excited," she said. "They're glad to be here. But one of them told me after the hunt that she thought that my guides had a bad attitude, that they were surly. I said, 'Ma'am, you are eliminating these men's jobs. I don't expect them to be joyous. I don't expect them to have a good time with you.' "

The Wallaces are allowing 10 hunters onto the ranch daily. They are escorted and closely supervised by guides. A veterinarian must test each animal for disease, including chronic wasting disease, before it's hauled away. The hunters are required to pay the veterinarian fees.

Those taking part are not required to have a state hunting license, and the harvest is legal as long as no payment is made.

The Wallaces are among state game-farm owners who have filed a class-action lawsuit contesting the legality of Initiative 143. The measure, which voters approved last November, bans the shooting of captive game-farm animals for a fee in Montana.

The Wallaces also have filed a separate action in federal court, seeking a temporary order to halt the portion of the law that makes fee hunting of captive game-farm animals illegal.

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