- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

ASHTON, Idaho (AP) — When 100 farm-raised elk fled his private hunting reserve through a bear-dug hole under the fence, owner Rex Rammell — a man with a long history of locking antlers with the state — didn’t realize he’d wind up in the governor’s cross hairs.

But a month later, about 20 of the elk are dead, shot on sight under an emergency executive order from Gov. James E. Risch. About 40 have been recaptured, and the rest are roaming the alfalfa fields and forest slopes on the fringe of Yellowstone National Park, home to the nation’s largest herd of wild elk.

Mr. Risch, joined by wildlife officials, says Mr. Rammell’s elk will pollute the native gene pool and spread disease. Mr. Rammell, a veterinarian who made a career of breeding trophy bull elk for wealthy hunters and a sideshow of fighting the government, says he sold his farm and his elk and would like to run against Mr. Risch for public office in four years on a campaign against government abuses.

“When people tell my story, it’d read like a novel. It’s like I’ve gotten on the wrong side of the mafia,” Mr. Rammell said of the state and public hunters who patrol the rock-cobbled roads near his ranch, taking elk in their sights.

“But America will soon know that there’s a mountain man out here that’s not going to let the government do it.”

The Western ethic that cherishes individual freedoms and eyes government with wide suspicion might run deepest in Idaho.

It was here that anti-government crusaders like Randy Weaver, who held a deadly standoff with federal agents at Ruby Ridge and Claude Dallas, an outlaw who shot two state game wardens, turned violent and gained national attention, all while quietly tapping a dormant well of sympathy among Idahoans.

Similarly, Mr. Rammell’s vitriol against the government is met with some nodding heads, at least here in far-flung eastern Idaho, under the shadows of the Grand Teton mountains and Yellowstone.

Mr. Risch — a popular Republican who had been lieutenant governor before President Bush tapped Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to lead the Department of Interior — has taken the unprecedented step of declaring open season on Mr. Rammell’s escaped elk.

He’s backed his policies up by citing wildlife biologists and agriculture experts in public statements on the domestic elk threat.

The state statutes are clear, Mr. Risch says. The elk are considered “abandoned” — not private property as Mr. Rammell attests — after seven days on the lam. Hunters who kill an animal have “absolute immunity,” Mr. Risch promised.

“Our wild elk herds are one of the gems of the Gem State,” he said recently. “We jealously guard that.”

But Mr. Rammell vowed to sue the governor and any private hunter who bags one of his $6,000 bull elk, which are selectively bred to grow massive antlers.

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