The addiction dates back 15 years, to an infant named Dolly.
All Vi Sargent had to do was touch her.
“I could have had a diamond ring - two or three carats,” Vi Sargent explains of her choice between buying a wobbly-legged elk calf or jewelry. “Nothing could have ever taken her place.”
Dolly was as far as this animal passion was supposed to go. Until Sargent decided Dolly should have a mate.
Now Sargent and partner Dean Hiatt have 47 animals on their 91-acre Selkirk Mountain Elk Ranch north of Bonners Ferry. Eight of them - including Dolly - are cows that Sargent raised on a bottle.
They plan to grow their brood - one of only two pure Roosevelt-elk herds in the nation - to 100 animals.
Roosevelts may be rare, but Rocky Mountain elk are behind wire everywhere from Canada to New Zealand.
Elk ranches are appearing all over North Idaho, creating hazards for drivers when onlookers stop for a gander and generating funny stories for owners who observe these antics.
Then there’s the burgeoning number of elk owners, drawn by lucrative profits and affection for the animals.
There are enough of these unconventional cowboys to make a convention this past weekend in Boise, under the banner of the Idaho Venison Council. It’s one offshoot of a knapweed-like national explosion.
Just seven years ago, the North American Elk Breeders Association was pulled together with 17 members. Today the Platte City, Mo., organization boasts 1,400 members, although not all of them have animals. Yet.
People have sent the association blood work, sire and dam certification to gain American Kennel Club-style registration for 18,000 elk. The association estimates there are another 90,000 elk in captivity in the United States alone.
The boom is expected to continue for a decade. The industry already is worth $500 million in the United States - a mere fraction of the New Zealand elk industry.
“It’s so lucrative,” Sargent explained. “You can feed three elk for what one cow consumes.”
Elk are relatively easy to raise and catch few diseases. A 5-month-old weaned calf sells for $3,000 to $6,000, said Paula Whiting of the Elk Breeders Association. The most prized breeding bull to date sold for $60,000.
People are scrambling to buy semen shares from other buff bulls. A single straw of semen from a top breeding bull sold for $6,500 at an auction in Canada last year, said Charles Guess, a Moscow, Idaho-area elk farmer with 200 animals.
Then there are the antlers. Called velvet - because the antlers are removed from the animal when they are covered with a fine, furry-soft covering - they fetch between $35 and $110 a pound. A good bull can grow a 40-pound spread.
The antler market dates back 2,000 years, when Far Eastern nations started using them for medicinal purposes. Best known as a potent aphrodisiac, elk antlers are supposed to take care of everything from liver trouble to diabetes, arthritis to fatigue.
The most valuable portion of the antler, the tip, is given to children as an elixir for ensuring good health, said Whiting of the Elk Breeders.
Korea alone consumed 143 metric tons of elk antlers in 1996.
Rocky Mountain elk produce larger antlers, one reason they are more popular among these unconventional ranchers. But breeders like Sargent believe the future is in meat. That’s why she’s sticking with the larger-bodied Roosevelt elk.
The United States imports 150 tons of venison a year, the Elk Breeders estimate. Demand is such that a Vail, Colo., restaurant owner started his own elk ranch to make sure he had a reliable supply of good elk meat.
Elk roast has less fat than turkey breast, Guess said. And it sells for three to four times as much a pound as beef.
Lucrative or not, most breeders profess a love for their animals that defies the profit notion. In 1990, an accountant in Missoula encouraged Post Falls dentist Tim Penberthy to start raising elk.
“I think if I had, I’d be a millionaire,” said Penberthy, who waited until May to buy the first of eight elk he keeps south of Post Falls.
But “I would like to see my animals be wild - not raised for the cash,” he said. “They are such a magnificent animal, and I’m kind of an unsuccessful hunter. This is a nifty way to have wildlife nearby.”
That’s not unusual.
“Some people are just in love with elk - their characteristics,” said Whiting. “They are more fun to raise for that reason. And you don’t have to kill them to make money.”
One could argue most anyone can get in the business. Rush Johnson, who founded the Elk Breeders Association, bought his first five animals in 1974 even though he had trouble telling the bull calves from the heifers.
He became so hooked that he’s driven 1,000 miles to buy a single animal.
Elk ranching isn’t without critics. Ten states, including Washington, don’t allow it because of fears that the some of the mixed breeds raised in captivity will escape and pollute the wild gene pool or spread disease.
That’s one reason getting into the business is not cheap. The required 8- to 10-foot high fences cost as much as $2.50 a foot. The animals obviously are high priced.
Still, some people just have it in their blood.
Sargent’s love dates back to childhood in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, where she watched Roosevelt elk as a child. But she was most struck when her taxidermist-father brought elk home from his hunting trips.
“When dad brought them in and hung them up, I thought, what would it be like to have them alive,” Sargent said. “I always thought it was such a shame.”
Elk have become such a passion that when Washington put limits on elk farms, Sargent feared for her “gals” - as she calls them - and moved to Idaho with her partner a year and a half ago.
“It’s not the money,” she emphasizes. “It’s to be hands-on with something so majestic. It’s there all of the time.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo