BOISE, Idaho — When the Idaho Department of Fish and Game announced the escape of more than 100 domesticated elk from a private game reserve near Yellowstone National Park, former state Sen. Laird Noh was alerted with a late-night phone call from a colleague.
The specially bred trophy elk — which GOP Gov. Jim Risch authorized to be killed on sight Thursday because of concerns they could spread disease and blemish the gene pool of wild herds — bolted through a fence on Rex Rammell’s Chief Joseph hunting reserve in eastern Idaho.
Noh wasn’t surprised. Rammell is a familiar name, a man Noh described in 2002 as a “bad actor” who shouldn’t have been “legislated off the books” when state lawmakers forgave some $750,000 in fines that the elk breeder owed to the state for numerous violations.
“This is often how we learn lessons,” the Kimberly Republican said Friday. “It was shaping up to be a very unfortunate situation. I didn’t think they had any business writing away actions of the judiciary and regulators.”
Four years ago, Rammell tangled with the state Department of Agriculture over hefty fines assessed against him for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags that identify elk as domestic. Inspectors also said he improperly maintained protective fencing on an elk ranch 35 miles east of Rexburg and protested a law requiring testing for the incurable chronic wasting disease.
Rammell took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he lost. Officials say he has since complied with disease testing, but never properly tagged the animals.
Still, Rammell successfully lobbied the Legislature to forgive the fines. A law capping how much state agencies can fine violators won passage and relieved Rammell of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Rammell has not returned numerous calls for comment about the elk escape.
A supporter of the bill, state Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said Friday he does not regret his vote. The bill did not support Rammell or the controversial practice of breeding trophy elk for wealthy hunters; it reined in the agriculture department for levying excessive fines, he said.
“I’d say I’m probably opposed to (domestic elk breeders),” Lake said. “But I said it then, I’m not going to let a department use heavy-handed tactics just because they don’t like them, either.”
Noh, who chaired the Senate Resources and Environment Committee for 22 years before his 2004 retirement, said the bill to ease Rammell’s fines typifies the knee-jerk reactions against government that Noh said have become so common in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
“This is a micro-example of the trouble we get into if we go too far in turning the free-market system loose with no controls,” he said.
But some lawmakers predict a swing toward more regulation in the elk farming industry. Lake predicted opponents will revive efforts to limit, or even bar, the operations in the next year’s legislative session. Neighboring Wyoming bans elk farms.
“I’m sure we’ll see some bills, from outlawing them to everything else,” he said. “The Legislature is reactive — you know it and I know.”
State Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, faced primary challenges from Rammell in 2002 and 2004. Even though Shirley said Rammell unfairly tarred him as liberal, he hoped state regulators would not burden the elk breeder with unfair fines.
He also cautioned against new laws that could hurt the growing elk farming industry in eastern Idaho. “Although, Mr. Rammell is an opponent of mine, I recognize this could be devastating to him as well,” Shirley said. “I hope we don’t overreact to the extent it hurts the overall industry. We have 140-plus ranchers who have been so careful and so diligent.”