What a sight! Just west of Mountain Home at the place where I almost always see a herd or two of antelope, more than 100 elk milled around a safe half-mile from I-84. I pulled the truck and duck boat far off of the highway and my friends and I watched with binoculars as calves chased and cows chewed. Down from the snows of the Danskins, the Bennett Hills, or maybe as far as the Trinities 30 miles away, these wild elk had apparently found some nice green shoots popping up in the wake of last year's wildfires. Although this year's (so far) plentiful snow is a relief to us after years of drought, it makes life tenuous for these wild elk. Energy has to be conserved and although these calves had energy enough to play, indicating sufficient food was available, who knows how far this herd would need to range if snow covered up this pasture? And who knows how far and wide the surviving individual animals will roam to drop their calves next spring or to find a mate next fall?
Without the hunter-conservationists who came before us and who saved these animals from extinction a century ago, we would have no elk. And how wonderful it is to live in a place shared with wild, free-ranging elk! How can a hunter like me begin to explain the magic of seeking wild elk in wild country, learning what they eat, where they go and what they do? Of listening, hearing, smelling and sensing them? And, in a lucky year, of sustaining life with the meat of a free animal; free of fences, food supplements, artificial insemination and antibiotics? After taking in the sight for ten minutes, I pulled back onto the freeway and continued home. And I thought about what a mixed message visitors to Idaho must get as they drive this stretch of highway.
Just 22 miles down I-84 to the southeast, near Glenn's Ferry, is a sign I wish I'd never seen but which I can't ignore: "Elk For Sale, Guided Hunts." Here the tourist is treated to corrals of "elk" so close to the interstate that you don't even have to slow down to get a good view. I imagine it is quite a treat for someone from back east to get such a close-up view of an "elk" which is not really an elk at all but a "domestic cervid." In fact, the practice of elk farming is so recent that these critters are not “domestic” either, in the true sense. Domestication takes many, many generations; these are wild animals "socialized" to human presence.
Guided “Hunts”? To shoot one of these domestic cervidae, a person does not need to take hunter education classes and learn about firearm safety or wildlife management. He need not learn to understand how elk live or where. He does not need to bother with scouting the land, or how to sustain himself in the backcountry. He need not care whether the herd has sufficient habitat to perpetuate itself. But for the right amount of money, sometimes $10,000 or more, the game farm "hunter" can bag a truly large “bull.” It may be a genetically manipulated, food-supplement enhanced animal, but mounted on a wall back home it looks just like a real elk.
Most states and provinces around Idaho have dispensed with canned hunts or “shooter bull” operations in one way or another. So the industry has found a home in Idaho. Industry is a good word for it, for in the words of Aldo Leopold, "the recreational value of a head of game is inverse to the artificiality of its origin, and hence in a broad way to the intensiveness of the system of game management which produced it."
Idaho has long laid claim to a heritage of vast open spaces with wild, free-ranging elk owned by no man, held in trust for all, pursued with awe. Are we willing to sell that heritage?
Sen. David Langhorst