Big Game, Big Business 

The controversy behind Montana’s booming captive-game industry

You don’t have to travel far from Missoula to see the largest herd of captive elk in the country. It’s right down Highway 93 south of Darby, on 1800 acres of hard-grazed steeps and gullies above Rye Creek, in the foothills of the Sapphire Mountains. The Big Velvet Ranch, owned by Len Wallace and his wife Barbie, has just under a thousand head of elk enclosed in eight-foot-high wire mesh fences. Like the many other game ranches that have sprung up around Montana, the Big Velvet produces breeding stock and hundreds of pounds of immature “velvet” elk antler for the Asian medicine and aphrodisiac trade. And like a growing number of them, it also produces giant domestic elk bulls for clients who want a fast and trouble-free trophy to hang on the wall back home. A Big Velvet ad in the monthly magazine Safari Club International reads, “The world’s most successful elk hunt. No kill, no pay.”

Apparently, the number of people interested in shooting what game ranchers call “alternative livestock” is growing every year. In 1999 alone, the Big Velvet provided trophies for 150 clients, at a starting price of $5500. The top prices, for the largest bulls, exceeded $20,000. Those numbers are just one sign of a fast-growing trend.

The game farm industry has expanded across the state by leaps and bounds over the past decade, driven by the drastic stagnation of the traditional ranch and farm economy, and by Montana’s mystique as a home of big-game hunting, which gives operators like Wallace an edge in attracting customers to their captive shooting operations. Montana is not the only Western state where game ranching has boomed—Colorado has 150 operations holding over 8000 captive elk—but there is probably no other place where the practice of game ranching has raised so much vehement opposition as it has here.

It’s very hard to argue with the enthusiasm and energy of Bob Spoklie, the president of Montana Alternative Livestock Producers (MALP), and a founding board member of the North American Elk Breeder’s Association (NAEBA). He is a fit gentleman in his 60s who runs 300 head of elk on his property near Whitefish, selling breeding stock, velvet, and trophy bulls. He has a reputation for being a firebrand in support of his industry, plainspoken and aggressive, and it is readily apparent that after 16 years of raising elk, his enthusiasm for his work is stronger than ever.

“Why am I involved in this business? I call it the two Ps,” he says. “Pleasure and profit. An elk is a clean and majestic animal, and wonderful to work with.” But Spoklie is foremost a rancher, he stresses, with a rancher’s concerns. “My father homesteaded in eastern Montana in 1903,” Spoklie says, “and we have been involved in ranching all our lives. I have four family members who derive a big part of their livelihood from elk right now, and without this industry, three of them would be out of state, looking for work.”

Although keeping elk captive can be expensive—the fencing alone runs up to $8000 per mile—Spoklie says the cost is offset by the fact that elk eat only about a third as much forage as cattle. “And right now, elk meat is running at about $4 a pound, compared to $1.26 for beef. It is all about diversifying so that farmers and ranchers can survive.”

While discussing elk ranching with Spoklie, it’s hard to imagine that his operation and the huge Big Velvet could be part of the same industry. But critics warn that the entire elk ranching industry—from the smallest ranch to the largest—threatens both the wildlife and the traditional hunting opportunities that make Montana unique. They cite the potential transmission of disease from captive big game to the wild, the displacement of native wildlife by “game-proof” fences, the dangerous resurgence of commercial markets for wildlife, and the perversion of hunting ethics involved in fenced trophy shoots. And with so many parties involved—from family ranchers to the state of Montana—the controversy over game farming is a debate with many sides.

Beyond Fair Chase

No single issue has inspired so much opposition to the game ranching industry as the practice of captive trophy shooting, or “canned hunting,” as it is called by critics. Certainly, no single issue better represents the enormous difference in philosophies between the game ranchers and the people who oppose them.

Jim Posewitz, of Helena, spent 32 years as a wildlife biologist for the state before retiring to start Orion: The Hunter’s Institute, an organization devoted to the preservation of ethical hunting traditions. For years he has been an outspoken critic of the game ranch industry, and says he’s appalled at the growth in the captive trophy shooting industry.

“It is killing,” he says, “and nothing more.”

Posewitz says that the issue goes beyond the simple mockery of fair chase hunting. “The worst thing that it does is to trivialize the value of these animals. A fenced shoot is just the sale of a fabricated image to people who have neither the skill or the inclination to obtain the real thing, and it is a threat, not just to real hunting but to our whole concept of wildlife conservation.”

Marty Boehm, who has raised elk on his small farm in the Flathead Valley for over 18 years, says he has listened carefully to the people who oppose his industry, but still does not understand their objections. “How do we detract from fair chase hunting?” he asks. “I know clients whose biggest need for wilderness is just to set foot in the state of Montana. If they are paying to take a trophy from a game ranch, then they are not out in the woods, competing with the people who like to hunt that way. I would say we are taking some of the pressure off.” Boehm does not have a shooting operation, but he sometimes sells bulls to those who do. “A lot of people have set aside the elk as this noble beast that is somehow exempt from any kind of use, as livestock, or just about anything else. We don’t see it that way.”

Spoklie, too, doesn’t consider the captive shooting to be unethical and like Boehm, doesn’t understand why so many people call it a mockery of fair chase hunting. “We usually sell the older bulls for trophies after they’ve peaked as velvet producers,” explains Bob Spoklie, “and it’s just a humane way to harvest surplus animals. We should have the right to harvest our livestock and sell it to the highest bidder, like any other producer. … As far as I’m concerned, we lost fair chase when we gave the Indians a horse and a rifle.”

No group has opposed the game ranch industry or captive shooting as doggedly as the Montana Wildlife Federation and its many affiliated sportsmen’s organizations, including Montanans Against the Commercialization of Wildlife (MACOW). Headed by Lolo resident and part-time hunting guide Gary Holmquist, MACOW is in the process of drafting a citizens’ initiative to ban captive shooting, and another to halt the future proliferation of game ranches. Holmquist says that the goals of MACOW are simple.

“Ultimately, we want to get game ranching out of Montana,” he says. “I realize there are property rights issues involved there, and we may have waited too late to get a ban. But I believe that we can get a ban on captive shooting, and that’s a start.”

Although he says he has many environmental reasons to oppose the industry, Holmquist states that his primary objection, the one that drove him to start MACOW, is a philosophical and emotional one. “Shooting captive elk represents the complete abandonment of the ethics of fair chase, it is disgusting, and it debases one of the most magnificent wild animals on earth.” In particular, Holmquist believes that the confinement of elk and deer is unnatural. “Why can’t we just choose to let wildlife be wildlife? And let livestock be livestock? The game ranchers are always saying that these animals are just livestock, and they have the right to do with them whatever they want, but as soon as they get in the shooting market, they call them trophies, and sell them as wildlife. They want it both ways, whichever way suits them best, and what we are saying is, they can’t have it.”

For their part, elk ranchers say that, with prices for traditional agricultural products like wheat and cattle at all-time lows, ranchers are forced to exploit whatever opportunities are out there.

“People are desperate for anything that will let them keep their farms,” says Marty Boehm. “With alternative livestock, I make my living on 50 acres, and I can tell you that there is nothing else legal that I could do on that ground that would allow me to survive.”

Habitat or Humanity?

When conservationists speak of another complaint they have with the game farm industry—the threat of wildlife displacement and habitat loss—it is often the Big Velvet Ranch that they point to first.

According to Montana law, wild game animals are a public resource and cannot be confined by private individuals. In 1993, when owner Len Wallace built the eight-foot-high fences around 1800 acres of his ranch, the land, like all lands that are fenced for game ranching, had to be cleared of all wild game. Because the land had served as traditional range for wild mule deer and whitetails, the clearing was no small task. Wallace hired teenagers to run through the area, hazing the animals outside the fences. Two helicopters buzzed overhead, trying to keep the deer moving. The area was temporarily opened to hunters holding unused deer permits from the season before. Finally, before the closing of the fences, game wardens were forced to shoot 49 mule deer that had eluded both the hunters and the hazing effort. In 1996, when Wallace applied for a permit to fence another 1100 acres of his ranch, the numbers of wildlife to be displaced were enormous—more than 750 mule deer, a herd of elk, and scattered bands of whitetails. Sportsmen and conservationists across the state were outraged at the prospect of displacing so much wildlife for a private enterprise, and letters of protest flowed in to the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP). Eventually, FWP denied the expansion permit and successfully fought subsequent appeals. The Big Velvet expansion permit is the only game ranching permit ever denied by the FWP.

“An elk ranch is nothing like a cattle ranch,” says David Stalling, conservation editor for Bugle magazine, the monthly publication of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Cattle ranching is usually very compatible with wildlife—elk and deer and just about anything else can cross a cattle fence to use the land for winter range, or as a migration route, or as a calving area. But when you put up an eight-foot-tall woven-wire fence, you put an end to all of that.”

Bob Spoklie takes the view of a rancher trying to make a living. “When the chips are down, you’ve got to make a profit from your land, or you won’t be able to keep it. If wildlife is eating the grass you need for your livestock, you are going to fail.” He points out that, on the property now occupied by the Big Velvet, all the previous ranch owners had failed with traditional livestock. “But since Wallace went in there and fenced the place for elk, he kept out the wild deer and elk that were eating all the forage, and he has made a financial success of it.”

It’s issues like displacement, loss of winter range, and disease threats to wild game that have kept FWP extraordinarily busy monitoring the game ranch industry, and they have managed to please just about nobody. Sportsmen say that their license dollars are being used to monitor an industry that is in direct opposition to their interests. Meanwhile, the game ranch industry insists that the FWP is trying to drive them out of business, adding that because their elk are domestic, they belong under the control of the Department of Livestock (DOL), which currently shares jurisdiction with the FWP.

Pat Graham, director of FWP, says his agency has been placed in an impossible situation. “I can tell you that I spent three years getting pounded by the game ranch industry,” Graham says. “They have been extremely aggressive, and they’ve done a very good job of painting us as the persecutors, and themselves as the downtrodden. Now we are getting pushed from the other side. Both sides need to understand that we are bound to carry out the mandates of the legislature.”

Last year, State Sen. Ken Mesaros introduced a bill to place the game ranch industry under the sole control of the DOL, but the bill failed to pass. Critics say the bill was a blatant attempt to cut the interests of wildlife and sportsmen out of the decision-making process regarding new and existing game ranches (Mesaros himself is now in the process of starting his own game ranch on his property south of Great Falls). But supporters say the purpose of the bill was to streamline the permitting process and save taxpayer money.

MALP spokesman Mark Taylor, a Helena lawyer whose family cattle ranch also raises elk, sums up his group’s position: “Everything that is outside the fences is wildlife, and the FWP should be concerned. Everything that is inside the fences is livestock, and only the DOL should have any control over it.” But the idea doesn’t sit well with FWP.

“We work cooperatively with the DOL,” said Pat Graham. “We have the wildlife expertise, they have the disease expertise.”

At present, Graham and the FWP are still having a hard time pleasing either the game ranchers or the conservationists. The Montana Wildlife Federation is preparing two lawsuits, one against the FWP and one against the DOL, alleging a negligent and dangerous lack of enforcement of the regulations regarding game ranches.

The Symptoms of Disease

Behind all the regulations, and at the heart of the lawsuit being prepared by the Montana Wildlife Federation, is the fear that diseases will be introduced to wild elk and deer that live outside game ranch fences. And very few people on either side of the conflict can deny that the disease problem is real.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, bovine tuberculosis infected captive herds of elk in Montana, perhaps from shipments of elk from other states. Then, Canadian livestock officials say, elk shipped from Montana sparked a TB epidemic in Alberta that swept across the province. The TB infected deer, pigs, cattle, bison and elk. Forty-one humans were treated for the disease.

Back in Montana, several elk herds were placed under a five-year quarantine for TB, including the Kesler ranch near Philipsburg and the Elk Valley Game Farm near Hardin. Since then, most officials and game ranchers have come to believe that with a new and more accurate test and more careful monitoring of captive herds, the TB threat has been reduced.

But by far the most troublesome disease to emerge in captive elk and deer so far is Chronic Wasting disease (CWD). First found in captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967, CWD belongs to a group of deadly maladies known as TSEs, or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, a group that includes the so-called “mad cow” disease that devastated the British beef industry in the early 1990s. Also among the TSEs are scrapie, a disease that has killed sheep for centuries in Europe and has been recognized in the U.S. for the past 50 years; and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, which causes dementia and rapid death in humans. The precise origin and makeup of TSEs is a mystery, much studied and debated by scientists.

In late 1997, CWD showed up in elk on a game farm in South Dakota, and in the next two years was found in Saskatchewan, Nebraska, Colorado, and in two elk sold by the Kesler ranch in Montana to a rancher in Oklahoma. Kesler had also sold elk to the Elk Valley ranch near Hardin. As a result, both ranches, and the ranch in Oklahoma, went under quarantine. Last December, officials decided to “depopulate” the Kesler ranch, euthanizing 81 elk with a mixture of lethal drugs. Six weeks later, tests results confirmed the presence of CWD in three of the elk. The Elk Valley ranch soon may be facing a similar fate.

As it stands now, state agencies have drafted new regulations concerning the transport of deer and elk into the state of Montana. Among the stipulations is that any new arrivals must come from a herd that has been monitored for CWD for at least two years—a difficult situation since there is no way to test a live animal for CWD. The Montana Wildlife Federation has repeatedly requested a moratorium on the transport of domestic game animals until a live test can be found.

The game ranch industry has taken the problem seriously but has no intention of going along with a transportation moratorium. To date, an organization called the Elk Research Council, funded by NAEBA, has spent over $200,000 to try to find a live test. They keep a CWD-infected herd of elk behind double fences in South Dakota for research. “We really need to get beyond the philosophical differences and realize that we are all in the same boat as far as disease issues go,” says Mark Taylor. “We depend completely on a healthy elk herd, and want to find a solution to this problem as soon as possible.”

Still, the game ranchers believe that the issue has been blown out of proportion by their opponents. “We are under a microscope here,” said Bob Spoklie, “and it’s easy to see that the CWD problem has been used against us. Sometimes I think that if we could put fins and a tail on an elk, they’d charge us all with starting whirling disease.”

The Future of the Field

The coming year will bring the game ranching industry further into the spotlight, as the governor’s office changes hands and as the citizens’ initiatives drafted by MACOW are subjected to the vote. Gubernatorial candidate Mark O’Keefe has already made his thoughts on the subject very clear. “Frankly,” he says, “after the Kesler experience, and now with the Elk Valley problem going unresolved, it’s time to evaluate whether this is an industry that Montana really wants or can afford. We have to decide whether to bring this to a halt before we do irreparable harm to our wildlife.”

Meanwhile, for Flathead game rancher Marty Boehm, the future looks good. Asked about a 10-year plan, he says, “We will have a live test for CWD, and will have eliminated it from our domestic herds. We will be supplying the elk meat that is now imported from New Zealand, and the market will be strong. Velvet, which is the fastest-growing tissue in the natural world, will be in strong demand on the domestic as well as the Asian market. There will be so much competition among hunters for wild elk that ranch shooting opportunities will be in greater demand than ever.”

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print

Speaking of Features

Tags: , ,

Today | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue
Teach Children How To Code

Teach Children How To Code @ Imagine Nation Brewing Co.

Wed., Oct. 18, 5:30-7 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation