Elk farm operator Len Wallace of Darby said Thursday he will consider a legal challenge to a court ruling preventing him from giving away more of his elk herd to the Crow Indian Tribe.
At a hearing in Helena on Wednesday, District Judge Dorothy McCarter denied a request by Wallace to lift a temporary restraining order preventing further shipments of elk from Wallace's Big Velvet Ranch game farm to the Crow Indian Reservation in southeastern Montana.
McCarter based her ruling on a state statute that allows the transfer of alternative livestock such as elk only to another licensed alternative livestock facility.
Wallace shipped 68 elk to the Crow Tribe last week before McCarter issued her initial restraining order at the request of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Wallace was prepared to give the tribe an additional 384 elk, including 259 pregnant cows. The tribe turned the first shipment of elk loose in the wild on the reservation.
Wallace said he is trying to get out of the elk-farming business because a recent state law, Initiative 143, has made it uneconomical to raise the animals.
He and his lawyer, Stan Kaleczyc, will wait to see McCarter's written decision on the case before deciding whether to challenge it, Wallace said. "We'll certainly consider contesting the ruling," he said.
Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said McCarter's decision is a victory for sportsmen. "By leaving the ban in place, Judge McCarter has followed the law and stood up for the integrity of our free-ranging wildlife," Sharpe said.
"She recognized the problems of simply letting these animals run loose and the dangers of co-mingling with our native elk herds. There is no way a game farm operation can ensure the animals are not only genetically pure, but will not alter the natural condition of wild elk if they breed. Wild elk are conditioned to being wild. They may be more resistant to naturally occurring disease, while captive-bred elk are conditioned only to being fed and cared for by man, behind a fence."
In the meantime, Wallace said, any option to dispose of his elk will have to wait until after the elk have their calves. Wallace had hoped to save $100,000 in feeding costs by shipping the elk to the Crows before the calves were born.
"We can wait no longer," Wallace said. "We have to retag the animals with the farm tags. They still have the federal and state tags. And we have to get them back on the mountain in their calving grounds. Right now we have them in the bottom, in what we call the winter holding area. It was somewhat questionable to move them at this late date anyway. But I thought we could do it. Now we're clearly out of time."
In issuing her ruling Wednesday, McCarter encouraged state wildlife officials to work out an arrangement with the Crow Tribe in which the Wallace elk would be confined in a game-farm setting.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorney Bob Lane said tribal officials have expressed interest in discussing the matter with the state and that could lead to an agreement that could allow the remaining elk to be transferred.
"What you see here," said Wallace, "is a pretty difficult situation. I don't think we have very many options. What happened with I-143 was really outrageous. I don't know what's going to happen. I'm not the only game farmer in Montana. All the other game farmers have the same problem. For some, it's pretty severe."
Initiative 143, passed by voters last November, is designed to phase out game farms by prohibiting new licensing of the operations, expansion or license transfers, and shooting of captive animals at the farms.
Wallace said he has talked to a number of other elk farm operators about the situation recently. "I've had a couple of them say that if this gift to the Indians goes through, that's what they're going to do also," he said, "because to keep them is pointless."