Faking the West

by Hal Herring & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ometime in August, 100 or more elk from an Idaho game farm escaped though a hole in the fence. The elk were from a domestic herd bred for huge horns and are known as "shooter bulls," meaning they're destined to be shot with bow and arrow or rifle by clients who engage in an elaborate fantasy that they are hunting the real thing -- elk in the wild.

The game farm near Rexburg, Idaho, that the elk fled from is called Chief Joseph Idaho, and one can't help but wonder what the real Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Tribe would have thought of that. Even as Idaho wardens kill these escaped elk in a highly controversial control effort, new game farmers such as ex-Denver Bronco Rulon Jones have targeted the state as the perfect site for expanded operations.

The runaway shooter bulls belong to Rex Rammell, a veterinarian and self-described "freedom fighter" and "mountain man." Rammell never reported the escapes, preferring the Idaho tradition of taking care of your problems yourself -- especially when you have a long list of violations and your farm elk have run off into the surrounding countryside, where the wild elk of Idaho are in the height of the rut.

Rammell says that he and his family could have recaptured all the shooter bulls -- they've repatriated 40 so far -- by luring them into catch pens with their favorite treats of molasses-soaked barley. At this point, complains Rammell, state game wardens have scattered and killed them. Rammell has not said what he was doing to catch his elk during those weeks before state wildlife officials drifted by to check out the rumors of an escape.

Wildlife officials from Idaho, Wyoming and Montana say they are worried about interbreeding and the possible spread of bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis and chronic wasting disease; Rammell insists that all of his elk are healthy. We'll have to take his word for it, since he has resisted every effort from the Idaho Department of Agriculture to test them. Apparently, freedom-fighting mountain men don't like to deal with pantywaist government employees.

And in Idaho, apparently, no one makes them, even when they have a business that endangers a public resource. Idaho game farmers lobbied successfully to have their industry regulated by the Department of Agriculture, because they claimed that state wildlife officials were hostile to domestic elk farms. It is true that agriculture officials have been supportive, even if at times they did have to issue a few citations. In 2002, Rammell racked up some $750,000 worth of fines for not complying with agency rules concerning his domestic elk. But convenient action by the Idaho Legislature meant that most of the fines were forgiven.

In Idaho, more than anywhere else in the West, people get elected to office on the strength of their hatred of government. Once there, they take grim delight in destroying the intent of the institutions they have been elected to serve. Meanwhile, states such as Colorado, Wyoming and Wisconsin are spending millions of taxpayer dollars in an attempt to control chronic wasting disease. Walking away from active governing is no problem, perhaps, as long as you live in a relatively empty region with nothing at stake. But in Idaho, what's at stake is the continued existence of healthy herds of true wild elk.

Idaho is one of the few Western states that has failed to address the game farming issue. Now game farmers like Rulon Jones have zeroed in, looking for the last best complacent place to build huge fences, kill off the wild big game inside them, and install domestic elk for clients to shoot. The experience that they sell, like any deviant fantasy, is delicate and must be carefully staged. That's why Rammell didn't want to use the orange ear tags on his elk that would have allowed wildlife agents to quickly track them down now that they've escaped. Rammell needs to sell an illusion of the Wild West, even as his clients kill up-close and in an enclosure.

There is a catch: The kill at Rammell's game farm is only guaranteed if you also hire one of Rammell's guides. If you dare to match wits on your own against one of those giant, molasses-loving bulls, there's no guarantee. Hunting all by yourself is what the farm's advertisement calls "the ultimate challenge."

Rammell says he'll sue the governor and anybody else who kills or has killed his escaped elk. Rammell also promises that he'll run for governor himself. Perhaps the voters of Idaho face an ultimate challenge, too.

Hal Herring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colo. He is a writer in Augusta, Mont.