Idaho elk escape worries Wyo
By WHITNEY ROYSTER
Star-Tribune environmental reporter
with wire reports Thursday, September 07, 2006
Wyoming wildlife officials expressed alarm at the news Wednesday that more than 100 domesticated elk have escaped from a private game reserve on the border of Yellowstone National Park in eastern Idaho.
"(The news) hits me very cold. It sends shivers up my back," said Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The elk apparently broke through a fence weeks ago on the Chief Joseph hunting reserve near Rexburg, Idaho, on the fringe of the Targhee National Forest, 10 miles from the southwestern border of Yellowstone. The escape raises fears that the animals will blemish the genetic purity of wild herds, spread disease and flummox hunters.
"This is the train wreck we've seen coming for a long time," Steve Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said Wednesday in announcing the escape.
Cleveland said officials from his office called Idaho and understood the escaped elk are red deer elk, a subspecies of elk not found in North America, "which would clearly impact the gene pool of native Rocky Mountain elk in the (greater Yellowstone area) and in Wyoming."
"We simply won't allow them to knowingly let them come into the state of Wyoming," Cleveland said.
Wyoming outlawed game farms in the 1970s, and the state has won court battles challenging the law. The farms are not prohibited in Idaho and other neighboring states.
In addition to problems with the gene pool, Cleveland said disease is a concern, as the private animals might have chronic wasting disease, tuberculosis or brucellosis.
"We don't want these animals in Wyoming," he said. "We absolutely don't. It shows you the peril that you incur when you have animals that are under private ownership that have the capability to breed with wild animals."
The only way Wyoming will know if the animals are here is if someone sees them -- the red deer elk can have different antler configuration and a different bugle -- or if a hunter kills one. Cleveland said his department has asked Idaho officials to keep Wyoming informed.
In 2002, Rex Rammell, Chief Joseph's owner and a longtime veterinarian, successfully lobbied the Idaho Legislature to forgive most of the more than $750,000 he owed to the state for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags to identify the animals as domestic. Regulators also said he improperly maintained protective fencing on an elk ranch 35 miles east of Rexburg.
Rammell also has clashed with the Idaho Department of Agriculture over his refusal to allow state regulators to inspect his specially bred trophy bull elk for chronic wasting disease. The incurable disease kills elk by boring tiny holes in their brains.
Other concerns trail behind the escape. Archery season for elk began in Idaho Aug. 31, and Huffaker said hunters may be unable to distinguish between wild elk, which are legal to shoot, and the domestic elk, which are private property.
Rammell told the Idaho ag department that the elk are tagged, but they might not have tags identifiable from at least 150 yards away, as state law requires, said Debra Lawrence, the agency's chief of animal health and livestock.
Department inspectors already have determined that Rammell's fencing was up to par, she said. The elk likely charged the fence until they created a large hole.
She said inspectors must complete their investigation before they decide whether to fine Rammell.
Rammell did not return calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"It's a mess, that's all I know," Huffaker said. "I've never been a big fan of domestic elk. I figure elk are in the wild and that's the way God made them."
On Wednesday, none of the elk had been recaptured. Yellowstone National Park wildlife officials said they are unlikely to even see one of the domestic elk unless the animals travel main roads or trails.
"It's an awful big park," spokesman Al Nash said.
Steve Schmidt, an Idaho Fish and Game regional supervisor, said Rammell did not report the loss to state officials. Several nearby landowners reported the escape and continue to relay sightings of suspected domestic elk in the surrounding alfalfa fields and forest slopes, he said.
Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said his first reaction is that the incident shows why Wyoming is fortunate not to allow private game farms.
"It's very difficult to keep diseases out of them," and if the animals escape, there are potential political and biological problems, he said.
"I'm just shocked to hear this. I hope they can round them up as soon as possible, if that's even possible."
Camenzind said disease, such as chronic wasting disease or tuberculosis, is "potentially catastrophic" for wild elk in the region.
"I think the state of Idaho should immediately exert all kinds of restrictions on that operator, examine his enclosure, try to determine if they can detect any disease there," he said.
Although Wyoming feeds wild elk in the winter in northwest Wyoming on feedgrounds, Camenzind said this situation is different because the animals disperse in summer every year.
UPDATED 08 SEPT 06 06:00
Idaho takes aim at elk
By JOHN MILLER
Associated Press writer
with staff reports Friday, September 08, 2006
BOISE, Idaho -- Gov. Jim Risch signed an order Thursday declaring open season on about 160 domesticated trophy elk that escaped in recent weeks from an eastern Idaho game preserve near the Wyoming border.
Risch authorized the "immediate destruction" of the animals by state Fish and Game and Department of Agriculture agents. He hopes to enlist private hunters, too.
The animals' flight from the Chief Joseph hunting reserve near Rexburg had raised fears they might spread illness and hurt the genetic purity of wild herds -- including those in nearby Yellowstone National Park, just 10 miles away, as well as Grand Teton National Park and other areas of western Wyoming.
The Idaho governor is also asking that state's Fish and Game Commission members, who meet today, to allow hunters and private land owners to shoot the escaped animals -- before they start breeding with wild elk as they wander the region.
"I don't think we've ever had an escape like this before. This is serious business," Risch told The Associated Press. "We have reports they have been seen a considerable distance from the place that they've escaped. The state of Wyoming has already determined it will use lethal means if its agents find any of those elk across the border."
After Idaho Fish and Game Director Steve Huffaker on Wednesday called the elk breakout "the train wreck we've seen coming for a long time," Risch acted quickly by contacting officials in Yellowstone, as well as Wyoming and Montana.
"There is a crisis facing our elk herds in eastern Idaho," the governor said. "Because of the escape of domestic elk that was not reported as required by law, we now have these farm-raised elk mingling with our wild elk herds."
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, which met in Casper Thursday, did not discuss the issue in open session. But Game and Fish Director Terry Cleveland reiterated his concern that the escaped elk could be a threat to animals in Wyoming.
The elk are owned by Rex Rammell, Chief Joseph's owner and a veterinarian, and have been bred to have large antlers prized by hunters who each pay up to $5,995 in September to kill a bull elk.
Rammell didn't return phone calls from the AP.
He did not report the loss to state officials, Risch said. Instead, several nearby landowners reported the escape and have been relaying to the state game agency their sightings of suspected domestic elk in the surrounding alfalfa fields and forest slopes.
The elk are tagged, Rammell has told Fish and Game officials, but the tags may not be visible from at least 150 yards away, as state law requires. He ran up more than $750,000 in fines with Idaho for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags, although most of the fines were later forgiven by the Idaho Legislature.
"I think the state of Idaho will be able to get fairly sizable groups of the elk and harvest them at once," Risch said. "We're enlisting private hunters, because they're the ones that will be chasing bulls that range far and wide ..."
Rammell has clashed with state Department of Agriculture officials in the past because he refused to allow state regulators to inspect his herd for chronic wasting disease, which kills elk by eating away their brains.
Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park, said Thursday park staff was in contact with wildlife officials in both Idaho and Wyoming to find out more information on the elk.
"When we look at the situation, our concerns have to do with what impacts this may have on wildlife in Yellowstone, and until we get additional and solid information, we really don't know what potential impacts these escaped domestic elk may have on the ecosystem or whether they will even find their way to Yellowstone," Nash said.
Nash said most wildlife biologists would be concerned whether the elk could have an impact on wild elk, "but I don't believe we know enough yet to answer that question."
In Grand Teton National Park, spokeswoman Joan Anzelmo said staff there, too, was working to get more information on the elk -- particularly where they are, and disease and genetic information.
UpdatedSpecial News Release
Contact: Niels Nokkentved 208-334-3746
Date: September 8, 2006
Commission Approves Proposal to Kill Escaped Elk
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission has authorized the Department of Fish and Game to open a depredation hunt, should it become necessary, to shoot domestic elk that escaped last month from an eastern Idaho shooter-bull operation.
No depredation hunt will be in effect unless the department director and the Upper Snake regional supervisor determine one is necessary.
The commissioners met Friday afternoon, September 8, in a telephone conference call. They approved a department proposal to send seven, three-member teams of Fish and Game and Department of Agriculture employees into the field starting Saturday morning, September 9. The teams will include two shooters and one spotter, with help from aerial spotters in a helicopter and fixed-wing airplane.
Sometime before August 14, an estimated 75 or more animals escaped from a commercial domestic elk farm operated by Rex Rammell about eight miles from the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park.
“They will be fairly well distributed by this time,” Department Director Steve Huffaker told commissioners in his summary comments.
Thursday Idaho Gov. James Risch issued an emergency executive order authorizing the immediate destruction of the escaped domestic animals. Friday’s commission action came in response to the governor’s order. Fish and Game is working with the Department of Agriculture, which regulates and oversees domestic cervidae operations, such as Rammell’s.
The seven teams in the field will be helped by other teams, including veterinarians from both agencies, who will sample the killed animals for disease and genetics. Others will help salvage the meat.
The department is reluctant to shut down the already open archery-only hunt in the area, and that is one reason for the agency teams to hunt the domestic animals initially for the sake of public safety.
If it becomes necessary, Huffaker may exercise his authority to open a depredation hunt on or before October 1. Such a hunt would authorize hunters with valid Teton A and B elk tags, as well as controlled hunt permits for hunt number 2122, along with private property owners in the area, to participate.
Other hunters may sign up with the Idaho Falls Fish and Game regional office at 208-525-7290. Hunters on the list may be called if additional help is needed.
Hunters who shoot a domestic elk, marked with a metal ear tag, three-eights of an inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long, do not need to tag it.
Huffaker asked hunters to avoid adding to the problem by heading for eastern Idaho with hopes of shooting an elk.