Legislature becomes battleground for elk rancher's rules dispute

February 3, 2002 The Associated Press by Mark Warbis,
While the Idaho Legislature was in the national spotlight for repealing term limits, nearly unnoticed was one man's effort to work the system in a way that some fear could undermine an entire industry.

Rexburg veterinarian and elk rancher Rex Rammell and a partner have been locked for 17 months in a withering legal firefight with the Idaho Department of Agriculture. It's stretched from the Madison County Courthouse to the Idaho Supreme Court, and he's lost each step of the way.

The agency has refused to renew the license at one of Rammell's two operations, the 1,000-acre Idaho Mountain Elk Ranch about 35 miles east of Rexburg. Such rules violations as failing to adequately maintain fences and provide proper holding facilities for inspections allegedly have become so flagrant that the potential penalties could total $781,000. "This is not a single incident. This is an ongoing issue that has continued to get more serious," said Dr. Bob Hillman, a veterinarian and head of the Department of Agriculture's Division of Animal Industries.

Rammell and his supporters consider it a principled stand against unreasonable government oversight. So he took his battle to the Capitol, where such sympathetic lawmakers as Republican Rep. Dennis Lake of Blackfoot helped him convince the House and Senate agriculture committees to scrap some of the rules developed to help bolster the credibility of Idaho elk producers.

At issue is the state's ability to certify to potential outside customers that Idaho elk are free of chronic wasting disease.

Similar to mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans, the deadly illness causes tiny holes in the brains of elk and deer. Confirming its presence requires killing exposed animals and testing their brains.

No case of chronic wasting disease has ever been identified in Idaho.

"Hysteria over this chronic wasting disease is so great, and there are so many opposition groups that are using it as fuel for the fire, that the Department of Agriculture felt like they had to write some really strict rules," Rammell said. "But if you go overboard when you do rules, you can put a person out of business."

However, some lawmakers, regulators and even Idaho Elk Breeders Association members are leery of Rammell's goals.

"The department has done an excellent job given that they're dealing with new diseases," said Steve McGrath, an Idaho Falls lawyer who has raised elk for over 20 years and is a board member of the Elk Research Council. "None of us likes regulation, and yet sometimes we have to welcome it as a necessary evil."

Senate Resources and Environment Chairman Laird Noh, the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee's senior member, narrowly failed to stop that panel's rejection of two "domestic cervidae" rules opposed by Rammell.

"I didn't learn until after our first hearing on this that he has been charged with violating the rules," said Noh, a Kimberly sheep rancher. "This is an unusual situation, and the cost of a bad actor - someone failing to conform with the rules - in this case is potentially enormously higher than in almost all other cases."

One of the dumped rules prohibits any hooved animals from using land for five years after chronic wasting disease is found in an elk herd. The other eliminates a civil penalty of up to $5,000 a day for each rules violation. And since that provision is a law as well as a rule, Lake is pushing separate legislation to make the penalties apply per incident but not for each day the violations continue.

"I see this as a very small slap on the hand for the department for being overly aggressive," Lake said. "I just don't think there's any place in responsible government that we should be having a $5,000-per-day fine on something as simple as this."

But Hillman said that if Idaho is unable to prove to the world that its chronic wasting disease monitoring and control system is tough enough, "then I don't know how the industry can survive."

Things already are difficult for the 71 Idaho facilities raising about 3,500 elk. The possibility that chronic wasting disease might be spread to wild herds and the lack of a cure or even a live-animal test makes people understandably nervous. Reports of the disease in Colorado and other states have dried up the Korean market for velvet antlers and made it a dicey proposition to move animals for sale as breeding stock or for meat.

High-priced, no-risk hunts for domestic elk - like those on Rammell's spread - are about the only endeavor still profitable. He hauls some elk from his home ranch, Elk Country Trophy Bulls, to the hunting facility each fall. Last year he did it without a state license.

"What were we to do? We had hunts booked," Rammell said. "We felt like we deserved a license, so we moved elk up there and we conducted our hunts."

He removed the remaining elk in December and contends all Agriculture Department requirements have now been met. Another administrative hearing is scheduled in April.

Meanwhile, Hillman said new rules should be ready this summer to replace those rejected by the Legislature. McGrath said federal regulations eventually will provide uniform disease control standards for the industry. And Rammell believes he made his point.

"We have not damaged the program at all by the rules we've asked to be deleted," he said. "We have just made them a little more producer friendly."

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