BOISE – Hunters will be allowed to shoot escaped farm-raised trophy elk that fled a private game reserve in eastern Idaho, the governor announced Friday.
The so-called “depredation hunt” opens Tuesday and will run in three stages.
The emergency season will be limited to private landowners in the area and hunters who hold elk licenses for the Teton management zone, a game region of forest slopes and alfalfa fields in eastern Idaho that brushes Yellowstone National Park.
Gov. Jim Risch signed the emergency measure to bolster the ranks of state hunters already tracking the escaped elk. He said Idaho’s wild herds need to be protected against the “genetic pollution” that could occur if native and domestic elk breed during the fall mating season.
“Our elk herds are one of the gems of the Gem State,” he said. “We jealously guard that elk herd.”
Since last weekend, Idaho game officers have been targeting the elk from Rex Rammell’s Chief Joseph hunting preserve. Up to 160 elk escaped through a fence in August.
But state officials have shot only 15 elk, said Steve Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game that is charged with monitoring the hunt.
Rammell lashed out at the state again Friday, saying officials are trampling his private property rights. He vowed to sue the governor, the Department of Fish and Game, and any individual hunters who kill one of his elk.
“If these people are going up here because the great governor of Idaho says they are immune from prosecution, they’re going to find themselves in court wondering why the governor promised something that isn’t true,” he told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Risch scoffed at the prospect of lawsuits, saying the state and private hunters have “absolute immunity.”
The escape has realized the long-held fears of wildlife purists in Idaho who say that mixing native and farmed elk populations could facilitate the mutual transmission of illnesses like brucellosis, which causes abortions in elk cows, and chronic wasting disease, which kills animals by boring tiny holes in their brain.
Four years ago, a brucellosis outbreak in cows, miles away from Rammell’s elk reserve, was traced to contact between livestock and wild elk from Yellowstone.
Acting to stem any potential disease spreading, the state Department of Agriculture planned to serve Rammell, a licensed veterinarian who has sparred for years with state wildlife regulators, with quarantine orders.
The department will test each of Rammell’s specially bred elk for diseases, including animals killed by hunters. They also plan to conduct a head count, if Rammell allows them access.
“Our rules clearly state that the quarantine can be clearly placed, even without the acknowledgment of the owner,” said Greg Ledbetter, a veterinarian with the Department of Agriculture.
Rammell, who says his animals are healthy and genetically superior to wild elk in the region, said he is concerned for his safety. He and his family have been stalking the hunt zone, trying to recapture the elk by baiting catch pens with grain and molasses.
“I highly doubt Idaho’s best citizens will be up there,” he said. “They’re going to be going after the elk the first chance they get and they won’t look left or right. They better know I’m not going to back off from a fight, but I’m not going to look for one either.”
There is also concern over how to identify domestic animals among the wild herds. Sportsmen who accidentally kill a wild elk will need to punch their state-issued tags, but there is no limit on the domestic animals.
Risch said Rammell has defied the state by refusing to apply ear tags identifiable from at least 150 feet away. Rammell’s silver livestock tags – just 1.5 inches long and less than a half-inch wide, state officials say – are harder to see, Risch said.
“We’ve been in litigation with this individual for several years on that very issue and to date, the state has prevailed in each of those,” he said. “Unfortunately simply prevailing in a lawsuit isn’t fully satisfactory when something like this happens.”