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Private elk hunting ranches challenge some hunters' views on ethical chase
BOISE, Idaho - When John Martone spotted a huge bull elk on a forested slope, he immediately knew it was a trophy, but that killing it would add thousands more dollars to his hunt.
"My plans were to shoot a bull a lot smaller than the one I actually did shoot," said Martone, an options trader from Seattle who after several minutes decided to pull the trigger.
The antlers on Martone's elk measured a whopping 374 and four-eighths points in Safari Club International record book scoring. That bumped the price up to $8,000 at the 1,200-acre Mountain View Elk Ranch, a private facility surrounded by high fences where domesticated elk are bred to produce giant antlers and hunters are guaranteed the biggest elk they can afford.
Martone's hunt was part of the burgeoning "shooter bull" industry in Idaho, which draws hunters from across the country to stalk farm-raised elk.
"We have a lot of people who are just tired of hunting (on public land) and all they see is wolf tracks," said Ken Walters, owner of Mountain View Elk Ranch. "There's just too much competition out there and there aren't that many elk in the wild."
But what some call the hunt of a lifetime to others doesn't deserve to be called hunting. Idaho's elk ranches themselves are in the cross hairs after the escape of up to 160 domestic elk near wildlife-rich Yellowstone National Park last summer.
Among hunting organizations, the Boone and Crockett Club "condemns the pursuit and killing of any big game animal kept in or released from captivity to be killed in an artificial or bogus 'hunting' situation." The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation worries that domestic elk could hurt wild herds by spreading disease. . Safari Club International approves of canned hunts, as they're called, but frowns on hunting farms that guarantee a kill because that violates the principle of "fair chase," which in essence means the animal being pursued has a sporting chance to escape.
"What is fair chase?" said Ken Sedy, a retired deputy sheriff from Arlington, Wash., who paid $4,000 to shoot a bull that scored 298 Safari Club points. "If you don't see a fence, it's just like hunting in the wild, but you're guaranteed to go home and eat elk meat."
About 15 Idaho elk farms allow hunting. The practice ranges from letting an individual elk go in a small patch of woods to be shot, to large, rugged enclosures where elk can be hard to find. Price charts tell hunters exactly how much a trophy will cost, with deals sometimes made right before the kill.
Bull elk that tally a rare 400 points typically cost about $10,000. Walters said elk with even larger antlers are "negotiable," and the most expensive he has heard of in Idaho was $35,000.
"Out of 10 elk raised on a ranch, maybe only one will have the capability of reaching 400," said Bill Rasmussen, who runs Thunder Mountain Elk Ranch in southeastern Idaho. "It takes a lot of years (six to seven) to raise a bull to that size."
Neither Martone nor Sedy shot the biggest bull in the enclosure.
"I saw one I didn't dare ask the price," said Sedy. "It looked like you could put a bale of hay between his antlers."
Backers of the enclosed elk hunting ranches cite private property rights in defense of their farms, and leave the fair chase ethics up to the hunter.
"It's in the eye of the beholder," Walter said. "Why should I make the decision for someone else if they want to go get an elk in a 5-acre pasture or in a 5,000-acre pasture."
Still, to retain customers, some elk farm operators are searching for the right balance between offering an authentic fair-chase hunting experience and making sure of a kill.
In a hunt at a different ranch, Martone said he was disgusted at having an elk essentially delivered into his cross hairs.
"They let the animals go in a big yard, and that's the wrong way to do it," Martone said.
His more recent hunt was different, and he said he plans to return.
"You have to hunt them down. You have to sneak up on them. It's traditional hunting," Martone said. "If you're not physically fit, you're going to have a hard time at it."
Both Walters and Rasmussen release 40 to 60 elk, mostly bulls ranging from 1 to 9 years old, in the spring into rugged, forested terrain of about 1,000 acres. By fall, the elk have become skittish around people, they said, making it more challenging for hunters.
"I've got a couple wild bulls that I doubt anybody will ever shoot," said Walters.
Elk that survive return to lower elevations of the ranch in winter where they are fed until the following spring. Some bulls kept for breeding.
"You try to breed the biggest bulls with the cows to get the biggest offspring," said Rasmussen.
In Idaho, domestic elk are not considered game by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, but instead are regulated as livestock by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
Therefore, a hunter shooting a domestic elk is no different than "the mobile butcher shooting a cow when he comes to cut it up," said John Chatburn, who works in the division of animal industries in the Department of Agriculture.
But the state's domestic elk hunting industry took a hit in August when an estimated 160 elk escaped from an eastern Idaho elk hunting ranch, prompting Idaho Gov. Jim Risch to order an emergency hunt, saying the elk could spread inferior genes or disease to wild herds.
Sharpshooters killed at least 36 of the escaped animals from Rex Rammell's Chief Joseph hunting preserve near Rexburg. After the elk escape, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer blasted Idaho for jeopardizing the health and genetics of Yellowstone National Park elk herds. Montana and Wyoming both ban elk-hunting ranches.
Risch has asked Idaho lawmakers to consider doing the same. That seems unlikely given that in 2002 Idaho lawmakers voted to forgive $750,000 in fines the Idaho Department of Agriculture gave Rammell for not properly tagging his farm-bred elk.
"Ultimately it's a social question," said Brad Compton, state big game manager for Fish and Game. "It's just what society wants to offer."