By Ron VandenBoom
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has become the battle cry of the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), Montanans Against the Commercialization Of Wildlife (MACOW), and Montana Conservation Voters, as they ardently resist the expansion of elk farms and shooting preserves in Montana.
But is concern over CWD the real issue concerning these groups or just a red flag that is used to rally support?
Debate over the issue has intensified with the recent announcement that MACOW has filed papers with the secretary of state to place an initiative on the November ballot. The initiative would place a moratorium on existing game farms and ban all existing shooting preserves.
Kim Kafka, vice president of the Montana Alternative Livestock Producers and owner of the Diamond K Game Farm/Shooting Preserve, questions the organizations' motives.
"They say their goal is to improve the relationship between sportsmen and landowners," Kafka said. "But they aren't going to do that by attacking the private property rights of landowners."
Kafka said MWF and MACOW have misled sportsmen in Montana into believing CWD is their primary concern while hiding their true agenda.
"My own belief is that CWD is 10 percent reality and 90 percent politics," he said. "And I've been hands-on from the start."
CWD is a fatal disease that infects the brain stems of elk. It has not been scientifically determined what causes the disease or how it is transmitted. It is also unknown whether the disease can be transferred to other species of animals like sheep, cattle, or even humans. There is no test for the disease that can be administered to living animals and it is only diagnosed by removing the head after the animal has died.
Both the Center for Disease Control and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services have determined that CWD is not a significant threat to human health.
Colorado and Wyoming have known that CWD exists in their wild game population for more than 30 years and to date there has never been a documented case of species transfer of the disease into traditional livestock.
So far, only one case of CWD has been traced to an animal that came from a game farm near Philipsburg.
"And that ranch has had no animals imported for more than 10 years," Kafka said.
Kafka maintains that probably the disease came from outside the farm.
One hundred percent of all game farm animals that die on game farms are tested for CWD regardless of the reason they die, Kafka said. He noted that only 400 elk taken in the wild last year by hunters were ever tested for the disease.
Stan Frasier, secretary/treasure of MACOW, said in a telephone interview Friday that his organization began as a part of the MWF but split away to pursue the initiative process and is no longer officially affiliated with MWF.
He went on to say that MACOW does not have an official membership where people can sign up or pay dues, but consists of about 20 members who represent a wide range of sportsmen.
He describes MACOW as more a "ballot committee."
Frasier, however, did say that protecting Montana's hunting heritage is part of what organizations like MACOW and MWF are about.
"Shooting caged animals is not what Montana's hunting heritage is all about," Frasier said. "Shooting them in a cage eliminates the element of fair chase."
Frasier said that many people already have bad feelings about hunters and hunting and to kill a caged animal and call it hunting is only going to give real hunters an even worse image in the eyes of people around the country.
He points to the image of park rangers shooting buffalo as they came out of Yellowstone Park several years ago as an example of what could happen.
Kafka argues that his elk are not wildlife and have not been wildlife for more than 10 generations. He said that he never has called the shooting of the animals on his preserve hunting.
"I've always called it harvesting," Kafka said. "Just like you'd harvest any other livestock."
Kafka said he receives between $5,000 and $7,000 each for the bull elk harvested on his preserve, mostly by eastern businessmen who want the trophy and have no place else to get one. Last year, 30 bulls were harvested on his preserve and Kafka expects 55-65 shooters to harvest elk this year.
So far, Kafka said, he has made 134 trips to Helena and spent hundreds of lawyer hours getting his farm off the ground and considers his ranch to be nothing more than a diversification of the family farm.
Kafka also spent numerous hours helping to devise rules and regulations that today are the most strict in the nation. A ranking that is mitigated somewhat by the fact that only four other states California, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin have farms.
Frasier said he also is upset that the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is also spending sportsmen's money to do environmental impact statements for privately held shooting preserves and farms.
Kafka agrees on this point, noting that the assessment for his 40-acre farm was $15,000 and 109 pages. He said he feels a rancher should be required to pay a "fair price" for the assessment. He suggested that a fair assessment should cost no more than $4 per acre.
In 1999 alone, the cost to Montana for environmental assessments was $190,000, while total license revenues were only $16,000, with half the money going to the Montana Department of Livestock.
Kafka also points out that if he were to put up a fence and put in cattle, or even buffalo, he would not have to get an environmental assessment and nobody would care.
"As long as people follow the laws, ... they've got rights," Kafka said. "I just want to make sure that they're respected."