Contention continues over a fast-food chain offering elk and venison sandwiches, with the elk farming industry pushing back Friday against a Montana conservation group’s criticism.

Last month Arby’s launched a limited-time venison sandwich nationwide and special elk sandwich at three locations, including Billings. The special tied into the start of hunting seasons across the country.

But the sandwich drew the attention of the Montana Wildlife Federation, which sent a letter to the company critical of serving deer and elk and saying that doing so runs counter to principles of fair chase hunting and wild meat consumption by promoting game farming and risking disease transmission to wild animals.

On Friday the Minnesota-based North American Elk Breeders Association announced its support for Arby’s.

“NAEBA is disappointed to see a special interest group in Montana publically criticizing Arby’s restaurants for the new product claiming elk is ‘wildlife,'” the association said in a statement. “In terms of elk ownership, elk is regulated as livestock in almost every state with a farmed elk industry, as well as at the federal level by the United States Department of Agriculture.”

The association goes on to question why MWF is targeting Arby’s when farmed venison has continued to be served in Montana restaurants. The association further asks if MWF will criticize those purchasing farm-raised turkeys from the supermarket for Thanksgiving.

“We encourage our breeders to have the healthiest operations as possible,” said NAEBA Executive Director Travis Lowe.

Lowe noted that most breeders are in a disease testing program including for chronic wasting disease.

Arby’s sourced its deer and elk from New Zealand, it says, due to limited availability in North America.

Lowe says he agrees that North American supply is probably insufficient for a national restaurant. He cites “over regulation and overcoming inaccurate information” as the biggest challenges his industry faces.

Nick Gevock, MWF conservation director, says his organization did hear from Arby’s following last month’s letter, but has not changed its opposition.

“We still think the promotion coupled with hunting season was tone deaf in Montana where we’ve banned game farms,” he said. “We do commend Arby’s for wanting to recognize the opening of hunting season, but we thought it was a teachable moment.”

In 2000, voters approved an initiative prohibiting new game farms in the state and banning shooting of the animals for a fee. Existing game farms could continue to operate but are prohibited from transferring licenses to another person or entity.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks says 29 licenses are still active for game farms, which are also called "alternative livestock" facilities, although not all currently house animals.

Gevock says MWF opposes game farming beyond the borders of Montana. He also felt that farm-raised turkeys were a poor comparison, citing the longer time period that turkeys have been domesticated.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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