- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

BOISE, Idaho — When John Martone spotted the huge bull elk on a forested slope, he knew he was looking at an awesome trophy. Mr. Martone, an options trader from Seattle, brought down the animal with a 130-yard shot from a handgun.

The bull’s antlers were later measured at a whopping 374 and four-eighths points under the Safari Club International’s scoring system.

Skill and luck had their part in the hunt, Mr. Martone said. But so did money.

He paid $8,000 to bag his trophy on the 1,200-acre Mountain View Elk Ranch, a private facility surrounded by a high fence where elk are bred to produce giant antlers and hunters are guaranteed the biggest elk they can afford.

“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 the ranch. “There’s just too much competition out there, and there aren’t that many elk in the wild.”

Mr. Martone’s adventure was part of a burgeoning industry in Idaho that draws hunters from across the country. But while some call it the hunt of a lifetime, others say stalking farm-raised elk it isn’t quite sporting and doesn’t deserve to be called hunting.

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.”

Safari Club approves of canned hunts, as they are called, but frowns on hunting farms that guarantee a kill, saying that violates the principle of “fair chase” — that is, a hunt in which the animal being pursued has a sporting chance to escape.

The industry has also come under fire from those who fear the farm-raised elk could spread disease to wild herds. Last summer, up to 160 farm-raised elk escaped near Yellowstone National Park.

About 15 Idaho elk farms allow hunting. The practice ranges from letting an elk go in a small patch of woods to be shot to maintaining 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.

“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 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.”

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,” Mr. Walters 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, Mr. 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,” he said.

His more recent hunt was different, he said, and he plans to return.

“You have to hunt them down. You have to sneak up on them. It’s traditional hunting,” Mr. Martone said. “If you’re not physically fit, you’re going to have a hard time at it.”

Both Mr. Walters and Bill Rasmussen, who runs Idaho’s Thunder Mountain Elk Ranch, 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.

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.

Thus, a hunter shooting a domestic elk is no different from “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.

Idaho’s canned-hunt industry took a hit in August when elk escaped from Rex Rammell’s Chief Joseph hunting preserve near Rexburg. Idaho Gov. Jim Risch ordered the animals hunted down, saying they could spread inferior genes or disease to wild herds. Sharpshooters killed at least 36 of the escaped animals.

After the escape, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer accused Idaho of jeopardizing Yellowstone’s herds. Montana and Wyoming both ban elk-hunting ranches.

Idaho’s governor has asked state 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 imposed on Mr. Rammell for not properly tagging his farm-bred elk.

“Ultimately, it’s a social question,” said Brad Compton, state big-game manager. “It’s just what society wants to offer.”

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