People driving by the Rose Lake Elk Ranch near Cataldo often stop and stare. More than 30 elk, right off the road, graze the soft hills and stare back at the humans 40 yards away.
The beasts, owned by a Montana dentist, were moved into the neighborhood two years ago, but they’re still a novelty to most North Idaho residents.
The Rose Lake ranch is one of about a half dozen elk farms in North Idaho and one of probably about 25 in the state.
Like ostrich or potbellied-pig ranching from a few years back, raising elk has grown from an eccentric pastime into a fledgling state industry.
As with other new industries, people raising elk are hardly getting rich, said Troy Jones, the Livingston, Mont., dentist who owns the 32 animals grazing on 144 acres near Rose Lake.
He and others say they doubt elk meat ever will replace beef in the hearts and stomachs of Americans.
But they’re convinced the time will come when buyers will want more elk steaks, supposedly a more healthful, tastier source of protein than beef.
“It’s not profitable to sell the meat now,” said Moscow elk rancher Carl Melina. “The real profit now is in breeding stock” and selling animals to others getting into the business, he said.
Another reason selling the meat isn’t profitable in Idaho is the shortage of state-certified inspectors who must examine the butchered meat before it can be sold to restaurants or shops.
Where it is sold commercially in other parts of the country, elk steak costs about $8 a pound.
Selling stock has been the main source of income for Tag and Sondra Hawks, who have a herd of more than 40 elk about five miles away from the Rose Lake Elk Ranch.
The Hawkses are North Idaho’s senior elk ranchers, having raised animals on their farm for six years.
“We get so many calls (for elk) that we’re having a hard time keeping up with the demand,” said Sondra Hawks. She said their most recent sales were to ranchers starting herds in St. Maries and near Priest River.
Mature female elk sell for anywhere between $5,000 and $7,500 each. Adult males, less valuable than the females, fetch a little less.
The other main start-up cost is for facilities and fencing that must meet stringent state requirements.
“You got to have eight-foot tall, high-tensile metal fence. That costs a $1 a foot,” said Jones.
Such fencing has two purposes, said Troy Ecklund, the full-time caretaker of the Rose Lake ranch. “It keeps the elk in, but it also keeps other wild elk out. They sometimes come down here and look around. They know we’re here,” he said.
While many ranchers also hear reports that the Asian market for elk antler can be lucrative, the truth is that horns harvested from the male animals can add income but won’t make a rancher rich.
“The price (for antler) varies,” said Jones. “It’s now about $75 per pound. It’s gone as high as $100 and as low as $40.”
In Idaho, the state Department of Agriculture now regulates and inspects commercial elk ranches. Up to last year, that task was in the hands of the state Department of Fish and Game.
The state’s chief concerns are making sure ranchers don’t steal native Rocky Mountain elk and add them to their herds, and making sure ranch elk don’t escape and breed with the wild stock.
“A real concern is genetic contamination. We want to make sure ranch animals don’t spread disease, like tuberculosis, to the native herds,” said Bill Kearley, chief of the Animal Health Bureau of the state Department of Agriculture.
The other concern - poaching - also is hard to monitor, Kearley said.
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