BOISE – Idaho’s top wildlife official says an obscure rule change sought by domestic elk ranchers threatens the state’s hunting industry by introducing a deadly parasite into wild game populations.
In two letters to the Idaho Department of Agriculture, Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore implored the agency to maintain its existing restrictions on importing domestic elk from areas that are endemic to meningeal worms.
“A few infected elk shedding a few larvae could infect native white-tailed deer, which could amplify the larval production and put large numbers of wild cervids at risk,” he wrote. If the disease ever becomes established in Idaho, “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to control. … It could cripple the state’s hunting industry, which contributes millions of dollars to the economy each year.”
The parasitic worm is found primarily in the Eastern United States. It causes neurological disorders in deer, elk and moose, as well as llamas, alpacas and sheep.
The Idaho Elk Breeders Association, representing the state’s domestic elk producers, asked the Department of Agriculture to remove the import restriction last summer. The proposal will be considered this morning by the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee.
During a hearing earlier this month, elk ranchers told the House Agricultural Affairs Committee the restriction isn’t supported by sound science.
Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said elk are “dead-end hosts,” meaning they can’t transmit the worm. Even if they’re infected, they don’t shed viable larvae in their feces. Consequently, the parasite can’t complete its life cycle and infect other animals.
Lifting the restriction also will help elk ranchers improve their operations by allowing animals with better genetics and bigger antlers to be introduced. That’s an issue because hunters will pay $10,000 or more for larger bulls, compared to $5,000 for small bulls and $2,000 or so for cow elk.
Supporters also noted domestic elk are the only livestock to face import restrictions because of the worm, even though other species can get infected.
“I’ve imported hundreds of sheep and I never heard the term ‘meningeal worm’ until this elk issue came up,” said House Agricultural Affairs Chairman Ken Andrus, R-Soda Springs. “In my opinion, the people who oppose this rule change are singling out elk farmers unfairly. Fish and Game and the sportsmen don’t like domestic elk farmers, so they look for any evidence to oppose importation.”
Moore was not available for comment Monday. In his letter opposing the rule change, however, he cited several scientific studies that “clearly identify elk as being able to pass on (worm) eggs in their feces, and showing they can survive low-level infections and pass undetected by current testing abilities.”
Moore said the parasite is a major reason why Minnesota has experienced a 50 percent drop in its moose population, prompting the state to close its moose season.
Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy, R-Genesee, said there was conflicting information from both sides during the House Agriculture hearing. Nevertheless, she opposed lifting the import restriction because of the potential risk to Idaho wildlife.
“I spent a week doing research on this,” she said. “What I’m worried about is the science just isn’t there: there’s no conclusive test (to identify infected animals) and prevention takes repeated high doses of drugs and steroids. My whole career I’ve supported agriculture, so it’s very difficult for me not to support the industry, but I just don’t feel comfortable risking our wildlife.”
An unusual vote reversal on the House side added to confusion over the rule change.
Typically, a non-fee-setting rule only has to be approved by a House or Senate committee to take effect. The House Agriculture committee initially rejected the proposed rule change by voice vote Feb. 4. However, Andrus said one committee member later came to him wanting to change his vote. He also believed there was some confusing testimony at the hearing.
“I didn’t know if the (initial) vote was the will of the committee,” Andrus said Monday.
Although House rules require a motion to reconsider before any “do-over” votes are held, Andrus said he was told differently by the department of administration. Consequently, he scheduled a second, roll-call vote a few days later; the motion to reject the rule then failed on a 7-7 tie, reversing the earlier decision.
“It was an odd procedure, one I hadn’t seen before and one the committee hadn’t seen,” Andrus said.
Since the proper procedure wasn’t followed, Andrus said he’ll wait for the outcome of today’s Senate Agriculture vote to decide what to do.
If the Senate committee decides to approve the rule change, the House action “is a moot point,” he said, since only one committee is needed for the rule to take effect.
If the Senate rejects the rule, however, “we’ll probably have to go back and do it over,” he said.
The Idaho Sportsmen Caucus Advisory Council is encouraging lawmakers to keep the import restrictions in place.
“If you think wolves are bad for elk, wait until this worm gets in them,” Council President Larry Fry said.
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