Big Game on the Ballot 

Taking the campaign against game farms to the people

Not much frightens Gary Holmquist of Lolo. The retired Marine Corps major has battled his way through three international conflicts, been shot, blown up and, by his own reckoning, has beaten cancer four times.

“You can’t threaten me, or scare me or intimidate me,” Holmquist says. “I’ve taken a lot of flak over this, but what I’m doing is right.”

“This” is MADCOW, Montanans Against the Domestication and Commercialization of Wildlife. The organization, which Holmquist helped found, was successful in obtaining the right to place a petition-driven initiative on the November ballot. Montanans will decide if they want to prohibit any new game farms in Montana and to make it illegal to operate “canned hunts” on existing game farms.

Holmquist’s petition drive needed at least 19,862 signatures gathered from 34 legislative districts across the state. By the final day for signature gatherings, last Friday, MADCOW had more than 28,000 signatures from 43 districts.

That kind of support has caused a lot of concern among game farmers, Holmquist says. Some of them have tried to provoke him into heated confrontations. But that’s not Holmquist’s style. He remains focused on the larger issue—his mission to end game farming and captive shooting in Montana.

“There are so many good reasons not to do it,” Holmquist says. “When I first saw elk behind fences and found out you could go pay money to walk up to one and shoot it, I was appalled.”

Holmquist describes himself as a “subsistence” hunter, someone who takes an elk and a deer each year and who counts on that meat as part of his annual menu. The thrill of the hunt, the time spent in the backcountry, the companionship of other hunters are all bonuses that are part of the Montana way of life he loves.

The idea of someone from the East flying in, choosing an elk, paying up to $25,000 and then driving up to it and shooting it is anathema to him.

“It insults me as a sportsman,” Holmquist says bluntly. “It’s buying what the almighty dollar can buy—prostituting wildlife. These ‘hunts’ are guaranteed. If you don’t kill, you don’t pay. Where’s the sport in that?”

Hunting ethics aside, Holmquist has done months of research, and other reasons to stop the spread of game farms have come easily to him, particularly the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The MADCOW name is a reminder that CWD is related to so-called “mad cow” disease, which devastated the British beef industry several years ago. It infects both elk and deer and is always fatal. It is named for the fact that infected animals fail to thrive, “wasting” away until they die, apparently unable to transform food and water into the basics of survival. The disease is thought to have an incubation period of one to four years, and the method of transfer and infection are unknown. It’s also not known if the disease can be transmitted to domestic animals or humans.

To complicate matters, it is impossible to study wild herds of elk and deer with enough accuracy to establish criteria for treatment. Studies in domestic and captured populations, meanwhile, have not established any answers, and only an autopsy can confirm if an animal has been infected with CWD. The special legislative session put a moratorium on new game farms until scientists develop a test for CWD that can be used on live animals.

“This is probably the most complex problem I’ve ever come across in my life,” Holmquist says. “Game farmers say that if they can’t raise game animals they’ll have to sell out and create subdivisions. But those 8-foot fences create subdivision-impacts in the wild herds now. Everything they do creates risk for the wild game animals in the state.”

Holmquist believes his petition drive succeeded where others failed because private individuals—sportsmen—promoted it in their own communities. They cared about what they were doing. Volunteers, coordinated by Holmquist and a few others, spread out across the state. “We received more than 18,000 signatures on June 6 during the primary election,” Holmquist says. “That tells me this is important to Montanans, that it is going to pass in November.”

Montana has 92 game farms now, with seven applications pending for new ones. About 25 percent of those operations advertise big game hunts on their property, and hunters who take part in them do not need a Montana big game license. Instead, they take home a bill of sale for each dead animal.

“What the game farms do to these animals is a shame,” Holmquist says. “To violate the wildness that is a part of the animal’s genetic makeup is a travesty. It’s taking one of the last beauties of the Treasure State out of Montana.”

A week ago, Bitterroot game farmer Len Wallace invited Holmquist to spend the day at the Big Velvet Game Farm near Darby. They toured the entire operation and looked at all the elk. The men talked about Wallace’s plans and reasons for the farm. Wallace answered all of Holmquist’s questions.

“Len Wallace was a gentleman. He showed me every courtesy. Under other circumstances, he’d be someone I’d enjoy knowing,” Holmquist says. “When I left, I thanked him and told him I still thought everything he was doing was wrong—and I intend to keep fighting against it.”

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