Money Game

Impatient hunters seeking guaranteed trophy antlers -- and impatient Asians seeking aphrodisiacs -- have made elk farms a thriving business. We're just starting to assess the damage
Michael Indresano

ON a hot September afternoon the small town of Hamilton, Montana, is a busy place. Expensive Jeep Cherokees are towing rafts and drift boats. Sport utility vehicles cruise by full of camping and fishing and rock-climbing gear. Old pickups loaded with firewood and a .22 rifle or a shotgun in the gun rack wait at stoplights. Conspicuous in the traffic is a brand-new flatbed four-wheel-drive with tinted windows and a special rack in the back, from which hangs a truly monumental bull elk, the smooth mahogany-colored surface of its antlers protected by a wrap of rubber inner tube. The metal of the flatbed shows a long wash of blood, and trickles of blood streak the license plate.

Even in Hamilton, where a dead deer or elk in the back of a pickup is a common sight, this rig slows traffic, as tourists stare and visiting hunters look on in envy. The locals are less impressed. They know that the spectacular animal hanging there is just another "shooter bull," on its way to a nearby meat-packing plant. Behind those tinted windows is a wealthy man who has paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of killing an elk that has been raised and confined within the fences of the Big Velvet Ranch, twenty miles to the south -- one of a growing number of game farms in the United States.

The rise of the elk game-farming industry is a relatively recent development, but the notion has been around since the 1920s, when an eccentric Montana character named Courtland DuRand set up a dude ranch where elk pulled wagons and rowboats, and customers applauded as trained bison dropped from a forty-foot-high platform into an artificial lake.

The modern industry is a more serious business. North American farmed elk produce 100 tons a year of blood-rich immature "velvet" antler, cut from bulls' heads annually in June and sold mostly by the Asian medicine trade, which markets it as a general tonic and an aphrodisiac -- by some estimates a $3 billion industry worldwide. Farmed elk also provide shoots for trophy seekers who have neither the time nor the inclination to take their chances in the Rocky Mountain wilderness. The number of people taking part in these staged hunts is growing. Last year the Big Velvet broke its own record, providing trophy heads for more than 140 clients. The price for a bull varies according to how large the antlers are. Hunts at the Big Velvet start at $5,500 and may cost $20,000 or more.

Colorado is the current leader in elk ranching, with more than 140 game farms holding more than 10,000 elk captive. In 1994 the game-farming industry in Colorado successfully lobbied the state to transfer the regulation of elk game farms from the Division of Wildlife -- which worried about habitat loss and the spread of disease from captive elk to native wildlife populations -- to the Department of Agriculture, which is less concerned with such matters. Wyoming is the only Rocky Mountain state that has outlawed game farming and captive shooting -- after a campaign that took several years and a great deal of public money. In Montana, despite the efforts of industry lobbyists, state wildlife officials still share jurisdiction with the Department of Livestock. And even here the property-rights movement, whose interests dominate the state legislature, has successfully deflected attempts by wildlife advocates to ban or further regulate the industry. Across the state, as new game farms are established, their fenced-in herds displace native deer, elk, antelope -- and just about every other wild creature except birds, which have probably benefited from the creation of large areas newly freed of natural predators.

Because wildlife is considered a public resource, the land to be fenced for a game farm must first be cleared of all wild game. The "game-proof" fences that went up for the Big Velvet, in 1993, enclosed some particularly valuable deer habitat and elk winter range. Len Wallace, the Big Velvet's owner, hired local teenagers to run through the gullies and coulees of the property, driving mule deer to the proposed fenceline. Helicopters buzzed the scattered herds of deer to keep them moving. The area was then opened to hunters who held unused deer tags from the past season. Finally game wardens moved in and shot forty-nine mule deer that refused to leave the area. The wild elk were still in the high country, so they escaped slaughter. When snow brought them down to their winter range, they encountered an eight-foot-high fence and came face to face with their captive brethren.

Prospective clients of the Big Velvet are sent photographs of available shooter bulls and a promotional video narrated by Wallace, who shows the bulls wandering around the property and reports exactly what each animal will score on the Boone and Crockett scale -- a standard measure of the horns and antlers of North American big game. In the video's finale happy trophy seekers -- including a bow hunter in full camouflage garb and facepaint -- pose with their elk. "Finally I got one exactly the way I wanted it," one client says. In game-magazine advertisements the Big Velvet boasts of "The Worlds Most Successful Trophy Elk Hunt! 100% Success, No Kill, No Pay" and promises a "video of your hunt" along with transportation and lodging. Other ads show giant bull elk killed by clients of the fenced Yellowstone Game Ranch, near Sidney, Montana, far out on the plains.

Presented by

Hal Herring writes for Field and Stream, High Country News, and Bugle, the magazine of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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