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An Urgent Hunt for Idaho's Escaped Elk

The ranch-bred animals might pose health risks to wild counterparts. Identifying the targets could be a challenge.

September 24, 2006|Julie Cart | Times Staff Writer

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Hunters have fanned out across eastern Idaho in pursuit of about 100 selectively bred elk from a commercial game farm that officials fear could spread disease and introduce genetic defects among wild Rocky Mountain elk, including a prized herd in Yellowstone National Park, just eight miles away.

Idaho's governor recently authorized a "depredation hunt" of the escaped elk, the first time such a hunt has been ordered, according to state wildlife officials. Authorities in neighboring Wyoming and Montana said they had given game wardens orders to shoot the domestic elk on sight. So far about two dozen of the escaped elk have been shot by hunters; tissue samples are being taken from the carcasses and tested for disease and genetic history.

"Time is of the essence; we have to try to get these animals back," said Steve Schmidt, regional state fish and game director. "They are a huge unknown to us. Any introduction of new genes might have unknown consequences. The risk is large because we are not only talking about Idaho's elk herd, but now we are also talking about elk who have the potential to mix with Yellowstone Park elk and elk from Wyoming. We have dreaded this day."

The 10,000 to 15,000 elk in Yellowstone's resident herd for many years have been used as genetic feedstock to replenish herds elsewhere in the Rockies.

But distinguishing between the ranch-bred and wild elk may be difficult because the escaped animals are only identifiable by metal ear tags that are smaller than state rules require, according to officials at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, which regulates game farms.

The ear tags and fence maintenance are among several issues for which ranch operator Rex Rammell has been cited in recent years. Porous fences, officials said, also allow wild animals to get into commercial pens and breed with captive stock.

Rammell's elk fled through a damaged fence. The animals were raised on the 160-acre Chief Joseph Idaho game ranch, which Rammell owned until recently, where they were part of a herd selectively bred for large antlers, kept behind fences, and then shot during private hunts by clients who paid up to $6,000.

Wildlife biologists say that because commercial elk are bred for a single trait, massive antlers, they may not be hardy enough to survive in the wild -- a weakness that could be transmitted to wild elk. Officials are especially concerned about the prospect of interbreeding now, at the height of the mating season.

"This is the train wreck we've seen coming for a long time," said Idaho Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker, who manages wildlife in a state with 78 game ranches, many more than in neighboring Wyoming and Montana, where private operations have been banned and only a handful of long-standing game ranches survive.

The pen from which the elk escaped is close enough to Wyoming and Montana that the domestic elk could wind up in either state.

"We banned game ranches to prevent this very situation," said Eric Keszler of Wyoming's Game and Fish Department.

Rammell, meanwhile, accused Idaho wildlife officials of trampling his rights and making the situation worse.

"This is about private property rights, and the state and fish and game are overstepping their bounds," Rammell said, adding that game wardens and hunters pursuing the animals had driven them deep into dense forests. He said that if his escaped elk had been left alone, he believes he could have rounded them up in a few weeks.

He said he was going to take legal action against the state for killing his animals.

Rammell, 45, a veterinarian, said his elk were disease-free and genetically pure Rocky Mountain elk. Nevertheless, the state placed his ranch in quarantine.

State officials said that although small numbers of domestic elk had escaped before from Rammell's ranch and others, this was the largest incident of its kind in the state's history. Despite the hunt, wildlife officials said they feared that most of the escaped elk would remain in the wild and that hunters would mistake wild elk for the runaways.

According to wildlife experts, domestic animals raised in close quarters are more likely to contract chronic wasting disease, which affects the brain and is similar to mad cow disease, as well as brucellosis and tuberculosis, ailments that have devastated wild animal populations.

Barry Reiswig, who manages the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyo., about 60 miles from the site of the escape, said wildlife managers had worried for some time about the potential for disease transmission from game farm animals in the West.

"The higher density that these animals are kept in tends to lead to higher risk of disease," Reiswig said. "You don't know what diseases these animals may have. They are supposed to be tested and the data presented to health authorities, but we know that that may or may not happen."

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