Thursday, October 26, 2000 By DAVID STALLING, L. JACK LYON, STAN RAUCH and LARRY TOWNSEND

Initiative 143, the game farm reform initiative, is a simple and straightforward effort by hunters and other concerned citizens to reform an industry which has for too long abused its relationships with traditional ranching and ethical hunting and in the process has put our wild free-ranging elk at risk.

Game farmers are doing their best to confuse voters and spread misconceptions about I-143 because they know that examination under the bright light of true public scrutiny will reveal the dangers of their industry to public health, livestock health, and to the public image of ethical hunting.

A recent essay by legislators Ken Mesaros, who also operates a game farm, and Ray Peck complained that I-143 will undermine recent actions of the state Legislature. We can only reply: "We sure hope so!"

These gentlemen want you to forget that ballot initiatives happen precisely because people believe their legislative representatives have failed to protect the public interest or to perform their duty due to political allegiances or from a true lack of understanding of an issue. If the state Legislature, including Peck and Mesaros, had done a good job for the people, I-143 would not be necessary.

So, what are the facts about I-143? What will it really do and why?

I-143 will amend state law to prohibit all new game farms in the state of Montana.

Existing game farms in Montana will continue to operate, but will be prohibited from charging fees for captive big game shooting operations.

Existing game farms will be prohibited from transferring their licenses to any other party.

I-143 also repeals provisions of the law concerning expansion of existing game farms.

If passed, here is what I-143 will NOT do:

I-143 will not affect traditional livestock operations, and will not affect ranches or farms that raise bison, llamas, emus, musk ox or game birds. The initiative only affects game farms that raise domesticated animals classified by state codes as "big game," such as elk, deer, bighorn sheep, bear, and mountain goats.

I-143 will not deprive current owner-operators of game farms of their livelihood or their land. Existing game farms can continue to operate, but the game farm license will sunset with the owner. The prohibition of "canned hunts" will only affect 15 game farms in Montana.

I-143 will not constitute a violation, or "taking," of private property rights. Historical precedent and recent case law are clear: "No one has an absolute right to use his land in a way that may harm the public health or welfare, or that damages the quality of life of neighboring landowners, or of the community as a whole."

No one has a right to pump poison in a river that may affect downstream users, and no one has a right to run businesses (such as prostitution or cock fighting) deemed unethical or immoral by society. Similarly, no one has a right to run a business that can spread deadly diseases into public wildlife populations and traditional livestock, and no one has a right to run a business in which people pay to kill penned, domesticated big game animals and call it hunting.

Why is I-143 necessary? Simply put, I-143 is needed to protect our wildlife and fair-chase hunting heritage.

Renowned wildlife researcher Valerius Giest calls game ranching a "deep but silent crisis" in wildlife conservation, and says "the trend toward viewing wildlife as a commodity has grown, cancerlike, and its severity has not been sufficiently recognized or appreciated."

Game farming attacks the tremendously successful system of North American wildlife management that was created in the wake of the market-driven demise of wildlife a 100 years ago. Today, all hunters depend on this system for their hunting opportunities.

Game farming is a long step toward a European system in which wildlife is privately owned, domesticated and commercialized, bred and manipulated to meet market demands, and in which hunting is only for the wealthy and powerful.

But that's not all. Game farming poses many other serious, well-documented threats to public wildlife, including disease, hybridization, genetic pollution, the creation and expansion of commercial markets for wildlife, loss of wildlife habitat and an unacceptable, bankrupt image of hunting portrayed by the paid shooting of captive animals.

Game farming also threatens traditional livestock ranching and people.

In 1991, game farm elk shipped from Montana to Alberta caused an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis that infected elk, cattle and 42 people. In addition to $25 million in direct costs to taxpayers, it also cost Alberta its TB-free status, estimated by Agriculture Canada to be worth $1 billion.

Each of these threats, taken by themselves, is serious enough. Taken as a whole, the impacts could be devastating.

Already, Montana is beginning to experience the implications of game farming. Here's what game farming has done to Montana:

Last winter, chronic wasting disease was reported for the first time in Montana ­ among game farm elk. There is no live test for CWD, and there is no way to know if infected animals are being moved around the state or into Montana from game farms in other states. Recently reported wildlife research has indicated that CWD can be a significant threat to wild deer populations, and recent medical research has indicated it may be a threat to human health.

Numerous domesticated elk and deer have escaped, and continue to escape, from game farms every year. The most recent incident occurred earlier this year when elk escaped from a game farm near Townsend. There is no such thing as a game-proof fence.

From 1995-1999, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and parks has spent $1 million of hunting license money (about $200,000 every year) to regulate and monitor game ranches to protect our public wildlife from disease and other threats. During that same period, game farmers paid only $38,850 in annual fees.

Captive shooting operations, or canned hunts, make a mockery of Montana's fair chase hunting traditions and tarnishes the image of real hunting.

Game farming creates and expands a commercial market for the parts of vulnerable wildlife, and can result in increased poaching as it has elsewhere in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Eighty-two game ranches in Montana contribute relatively little to Montana's economy, but they threaten a $413 million economy based on the direct public use and enjoyment of public wildlife.

These dangers are far from speculative. The threats of game farming to wildlife are many and well-documented. A methodical report prepared by Wyoming wildlife biologist Bob Lanka thoroughly documents the problems of escapes, disease, hybridization and other problems experienced in various states and provinces because of game farming.

Several years ago, the report withstood intense scrutiny during legal challenges to Wyoming's ban on game farming. In a 1996 report on game farming prepared by the Utah Division of Wildlife, wildlife professionals interviewed officials in every state and province where game farming exists.

The results: Every one of them reported numerous problems associated with game ranching and considered the industry a grave threat to wildlife.

That is why the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society, made up of wildlife professionals, strongly opposes game farming and has expressed support for I-143.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also has a position against game farming and supports I-143. Sportsmen For I-143 is also backed by the Montana Bowhunters Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Ravalli Fish and Wildlife Association, Prickly Pear Sportsmen, Polson Outdoors, Billings Rod and Gun Club and numerous other sportsmen organizations. Wildlife professionals throughout Montana also support I-143.

The Montana Legislature has failed to recognize and deal with the serious threats of game farming to our wildlife and fair-chase hunting heritage. If unchecked, the problems will grow more severe.

We need to act now before game farming grows further out of control. I-143 is an opportunity for the citizens of Montana to at last have a say in protecting our wildlife and fair-chase hunting heritage.

In the words of retired Montana wildlife biologist Jim Posewitz, founder of the Helena-based Orion-The Hunter's Institute: "Game farming commercializes the last remnants of the great wild commons, it seeks to privatize what is held in trust by all of us, it domesticates the wildness we seek to preserve, and it trivializes what is exceptional … The things we cherish die inside the woven wire of game farms."

Keep the wild in wildlife and keep the hunt in hunting. Vote for I-143.

David Stalling is the conservation editor for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundations' Bugle Magazine; L. Jack Lyon is a retired Forest Service wildlife scientist and member of the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society; Stan Rauch is the Public Relations Director of the Montana Bowhunters' Association, and Larry Townsend runs the Townsend ranch in Darby.

Coming Friday: Len Wallace of Darby argues against Initiative 143.

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