Wyoming wildlife officials expressed alarm at the news Wednesday that more than 100 domesticated elk have escaped from a private game reserve on the border of Yellowstone National Park in eastern Idaho.
“(The news) hits me very cold. It sends shivers up my back,” said Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The elk apparently broke through a fence weeks ago on the Chief Joseph hunting reserve near Rexburg, Idaho, on the fringe of the Targhee National Forest, 10 miles from the southwestern border of Yellowstone. The escape raises fears that the animals will blemish the genetic purity of wild herds, spread disease and flummox hunters.
“This is the train wreck we’ve seen coming for a long time,” Steve Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said Wednesday in announcing the escape.
Cleveland said officials from his office called Idaho and understood the escaped elk are red deer elk, a subspecies of elk not found in North America, “which would clearly impact the gene pool of native Rocky Mountain elk in the (greater Yellowstone area) and in Wyoming.”
“We simply won’t allow them to knowingly let them come into the state of Wyoming,” Cleveland said. Wyoming outlawed game farms in the 1970s, and the state has won court battles challenging the law. The farms are not prohibited in Idaho and other neighboring states.
In addition to problems with the gene pool, Cleveland said disease is a concern, as the private animals might have chronic wasting disease, tuberculosis or brucellosis. “We don’t want these animals in Wyoming,” he said. “We absolutely don’t. It shows you the peril that you incur when you have animals that are under private ownership that have the capability to breed with wild animals.”
The only way Wyoming will know if the animals are here is if someone sees them — the red deer elk can have different antler configuration and a different bugle — or if a hunter kills one. Cleveland said his department has asked Idaho officials to keep Wyoming informed.
In 2002, Rex Rammell, Chief Joseph’s owner and a longtime veterinarian, successfully lobbied the Idaho Legislature to forgive most of the more than $750,000 he owed to the state for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags to identify the animals as domestic. Regulators also said he improperly maintained protective fencing on an elk ranch 35 miles east of Rexburg.
Rammell also has clashed with the Idaho Department of Agriculture over his refusal to allow state regulators to inspect his specially bred trophy bull elk for chronic wasting disease. The incurable disease kills elk by boring tiny holes in their brains.
Other concerns trail behind the escape. Archery season for elk began in Idaho Aug. 31, and Huffaker said hunters may be unable to distinguish between wild elk, which are legal to shoot, and the domestic elk, which are private property.
Rammell told the Idaho ag department that the elk are tagged, but they might not have tags identifiable from at least 150 yards away, as state law requires, said Debra Lawrence, the agency’s chief of animal health and livestock.
Department inspectors already have determined that Rammell’s fencing was up to par, she said. The elk likely charged the fence until they created a large hole. She said inspectors must complete their investigation before they decide whether to fine Rammell.
Rammell did not return calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday.
“It’s a mess, that’s all I know,” Huffaker said. “I’ve never been a big fan of domestic elk. I figure elk are in the wild and that’s the way God made them.”
On Wednesday, none of the elk had been recaptured. Yellowstone National Park wildlife officials said they are unlikely to even see one of the domestic elk unless the animals travel main roads or trails.
“It’s an awful big park,” spokesman Al Nash said. Steve Schmidt, an Idaho Fish and Game regional supervisor, said Rammell did not report the loss to state officials. Several nearby landowners reported the escape and continue to relay sightings of suspected domestic elk in the surrounding alfalfa fields and forest slopes, he said.
Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said his first reaction is that the incident shows why Wyoming is fortunate not to allow private game farms.
“It’s very difficult to keep diseases out of them,” and if the animals escape, there are potential political and biological problems, he said.
“I’m just shocked to hear this. I hope they can round them up as soon as possible, if that’s even possible.” Camenzind said disease, such as chronic wasting disease or tuberculosis, is “potentially catastrophic” for wild elk in the region.
“I think the state of Idaho should immediately exert all kinds of restrictions on that operator, examine his enclosure, try to determine if they can detect any disease there,” he said.
Although Wyoming feeds wild elk in the winter in northwest Wyoming on feedgrounds, Camenzind said this situation is different because the animals disperse in summer every year.