Following the lead of Idaho, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has directed its employees to shoot any elk/red deer hybrids that may show up in Wyoming after they escaped recently from an eastern Idaho game farm.

The lethal removal of these animals will address potential disease and genetic hybridization concerns within Wyoming’s wild elk, said Robin Kepple, Game and Fish information officer in Casper.

Game and Fish Director Terry Cleveland said he’s deeply suspicious as to why the Idaho owner of the escaped domestic elk has historically refused to allow Idaho officials to inspect his animals for disease. Animal farms around the country have incubated such diseases as brucellosis, tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease. Cleveland said he’s also worried about the timing of the escape — the fall breeding season is already under way. Hybrid elk/red deer might have already mated with native elk.

“It is almost a worst-case scenario,” he said, implying that the only thing that could be worse is if the domestic animals turn out to be diseased.

The domesticated animals escaped from the Chief Joseph hunting preserve near Rexburg, Idaho, where they were bred for large antlers and canned hunts for hunters willing to pay top dollar for a guaranteed kill. The Wyoming agency issued the lethal take permit for the 160 domesticated elk that escaped from the game farm 10 miles west of the Wyoming/Yellowstone National Park border.

Wyoming is not actively enlisting private sportsmen in the eradication of the domesticated elk. Scott Talbot, an assistant division chief in Game and Fish’s wildlife division, said Wyoming hunters may indeed wind up taking some of these escaped animals.

“An elk is an elk,” said Talbot, so if a hunter bags a domesticated elk inadvertently, that’s his or her elk for the season. Given migration patterns, he said, there’s a strong possibility that some domesticated elk will eventually show up in Wyoming. Just in case, Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds will be closely monitored, he said. It won’t be easy to spot an escaped domesticated elk, or distinguish it from wild elk. According to Ed Mitchell, conservation information supervisor for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the domesticated elk have USDA brucellosis ear tags — aluminum tags about the size of a postage stamp.

“I’m told they tend to oxidize to a dull gray,” Mitchell said.

Al Nash, spokesman for Yellowstone National Park, said there have been no sightings in the park, where the fall rutting season is under way. Nash said park biologists are concerned about protecting the genetic purity of the wild elk herd in Yellowstone.

Why is genetic purity important? “Genetic hybridization can be a bad idea for three reasons,” said Fred Allendorf, a professor of biology at the University of Montana. “First, wild populations tend to be genetically adapted to local conditions, so if you introduce genes that aren’t adapted locally, you can have problems. Secondly, hybrids tend to have reduced fitness. Third is the prevalence of disease in game farms.”

Hybridization can have unfortunate consequences, he said. Take, for example, a recent paper on hybridization between whitetail and mule deer.

“You know how mule deer hop and whitetails gallop? Hybrids tend to stumble,” Allendorf said.

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