The truth about N.D. elk industry

Those opposed to game farms are making a lot of noise again. This time they have gained an ally in Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who has agreed to sponsor a bill that would virtually put many hard-working, honest North Dakota producers out of business.

Those opposed to game farms are making a lot of noise again. This time they have gained an ally in Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who has agreed to sponsor a bill that would virtually put many hard-working, honest North Dakota producers out of business. However the rhetoric and misinformation are the same.

In a Dec. 31 column in The Forum, it was suggested a handful of states have banned "canned hunting" as it is called. One state that caught my attention was Texas. That state has a huge preserve hunting industry including everything from deer and elk to many exotic species. Of course attention to facts and truthfulness are not often the allies of one attempting to stir the pot of public opinion. I would like to address several of the issues raised with factual information.

Proponents of this legislation emphasize three areas of concern: disease, genetics and hunting ethics.

Disease has been and always will be of great concern to livestock producers and wildlife managers. It is no secret that occasionally disease shows up in both sectors of the animal world. Some would like you to believe game farms are teeming with disease and are a grave threat to wildlife. Here is the truth.

North Dakota has had domesticated elk for more than 40 years. Today we have yet to diagnose our first case of chronic wasting disease after testing literally thousands of these elk over the last eight years. The elk ranchers also adhere to a strict system of testing for tuberculosis and brucellosis, which has rewarded them with a clean bill of health.


We will never eliminate disease, especially in the wild. But cooperation between North Dakota Board of Animal Health and North Dakota Game and Fish has served us well in keeping our landscape disease-free. Farmed elk do not pose any greater threat of disease than do other forms of domestic livestock, especially since they share many of the same diseases.

Potential genetic pollution is also raised as a reason to ban game farms. If genetics and disease are viable concerns, why is the proposed bill only to ban hunting preserves and not to end the game farm industry immediately? Makes me wonder what is the true motivation of these groups.

The genetics inside the fence are the same, if not better, than those outside the fence.

Again, the truth is elk producers certainly select their breeding herd from the heartiest, largest, best-producing genetics available to them. This has resulted in the production of bulls that really wow the hunting public. This is not "genetic engineering" but simply selective breeding that demonstrates the true potential of these majestic beasts. In contrast to that, you have a wild herd that has also been genetically modified. Only in this case, the result is the opposite. For many years trophy hunters have been allowed to harvest the largest bulls from the herd, allowing the lesser bulls to do the bulk of the breeding. The net result of this is a wild herd that doesn't have the genetic potential to produce what we see coming out of domestic herds. This has also contributed to the demand for trophy bulls on game preserves.

One other aspect of the genetic/disease issue is the potential to selectively breed for disease resistance. So far all attempts to control CWD in the wild have failed. There is evidence to suggest - it has worked in sheep with a similar disease - that genetic resistance is a possibility. Testing and breeding to this end could certainly be a part of the domestic industry in the future.

Hunter ethics is the other great debate. The definition of these terms is widely varied. Many hunters will use every legal means available to them to increase their odds of success. This may include technology, firearms, clothing, and even dogs and baiting. Others would argue in favor of more traditional methods, such as a long bow, to increase the challenge of the hunt.

I often hear the excuse that preserve hunting may turn the nonhunting public against all hunters. My response is the perception of the nonhunting public of hunters has nothing to do with preserve hunting. Certainly free-chase hunters are responsible to the public as to how they harvest the public's resource. However, the animals in a hunting preserve are no more the public's resource than are my house, my car or any other livestock.

I would argue that we certainly harvest our animals in a timely and humane fashion, often much more so than what goes on with free-chase hunting. We do not allow animals to be wounded and suffer for days or weeks on end.


If preserve hunting of elk and deer is outlawed in North Dakota, will this apply to buffalo ranches, pheasant farms, etc.? How is it any more "ethical" to shoot a buffalo out in a pasture than an elk in a preserve or a farm-raised pheasant, for that matter?

The state of North Dakota has done much to encourage the development of the elk industry. Now a small group of radical sportsmen are proposing that after the state encouraged the development of this industry, it should regulate it out of business - and that without any compensation. That's unethical.

Wagenman is past president of North Dakota Elk Growers Assoc. He recently moved to Spearfish, S.D., but remains involved in the elk business in North Dakota. E-mail

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