On a recent morning, Bill and two of his buddies make the drive from Littleton to Evergreen to do a little game harvesting -- buffalo, to be specific. The shooter, Bill, arrives last. He walks down to the pen and peers inside the chain-link fence to scope out the quarry. "That's the two-year-old I'm after," he says. "He's a good-looking one, isn't he?"
The spread -- a hundred-acre collection of fields, pens, fences and paddocks surrounded by upscale subdivisions in south Evergreen -- is owned by Ron Lewis, a local resident for six decades. "You want him hung by his head or his tail?" he asks Bill.
"Tail, I guess. You want me to get my gun, get this done?"
Steve, one of Bill's friends, asks, "You want a picture before you kill it? I got a camera."
Lewis enters the stall and shuts the gate behind him. He carries a bucket of grain, which he shakes every few seconds, hoping the sound of a meal will coax the buffalo into a nearby holding pen. The next-door stall is slightly larger, thus safer: There's less of a chance that Bill's bullet will ricochet off a metal fence.
The buffalo, however, is uncooperative. He bellows at another male on the other side of the fence; the maraca sound of the grain in the bucket is unenticing. Lewis opens the gate and walks out. He climbs onto a fifteen-foot tower overlooking the pen. "You wanna come up here?" he calls down to Bill.
Gary, Bill's other friend, takes it all in. "This isn't the most exciting way to harvest a buffalo," he admits. "But it is quick."
"I much prefer buffalo," Steve adds. "When you buy beef, you never know what you're gonna get. Besides, buffalo's leaner meat. And I like the taste."
Lewis climbs down from the tower and tries the grain-bucket ploy again. This time the buffalo cooperates, following the sound of the feed bucket into the adjacent pen. Bill walks over to his truck and unzips a gun case on its hood. He returns with a seven-millimeter mag rifle equipped with a scope and climbs up on the tower. Lewis walks a few yards away from the pen and fires up a backhoe. He waits in the cab, letting it idle.
Looking down from his perch, Bill follows the buffalo with his gun barrel, the weapon half-shouldered. Each time the animal stops, he lifts the rifle to eye level. But then the buffalo snorts and trots away. Three or four elk watch the proceedings from the other side of the fence.
Bill sighs. He climbs down from the tower; the ground might be easier after all. Shadowing the buffalo along the chain-link fence as it wanders back and forth, Bill pokes the barrel through a link several times and sights in. But the creature is restless, refusing to stand still long enough for a solid shot.
Finally, the buffalo stops in the middle of the pen to nibble on some hay inside a feeder. Bill pushes the gun through the fence and looks through the scope.
"Man," he complains, backing away. The sun is in his eyes. Gary moves over and takes off his red baseball cap and holds it in front of Bill's forehead to block the glare.
"Little lower," Bill says. Gary drops the cap a shade. Bill pulls on his ear protection, which looks like a set of old hi-fi headphones. He aims at a spot behind the animal's left ear. A moment later, there is a loud bang. The spectator elk snort and stamp. The buffalo drops onto its right side like a load of spilled bricks.
Bill hustles back to his truck, seemingly embarrassed to be caught toting a gun with a dead buffalo in a nearby pen. "Did he go down hard?" he asks.
"Yeah," Gary says. Back at the paddock, the buffalo's top legs windmill slowly for half a minute and then stop. Its eyes cloud over.
Lewis puts the backhoe into gear and drives it into the pen. He wraps chains around the carcass's legs, fastens them to the front bucket and climbs back into the machine. With the buffalo dangling about four feet in the air, Lewis drives fifty feet or so to the entrance of a storage shed, where the animal is weighed: 1,205 pounds. The three men will divide the meat among them.
"Boy, they pack tight, don't they?" Bill exclaims.
"This is the hardest part of the job," Lewis admits as the three men begin dressing the buffalo, for which they have paid $1,200. "You raise 'em for two years and then watch this. But," he adds, "you gotta do it. If he don't die, the others don't live."
The canned-hunt industry has never been a particularly popular business. PR-wise, trying to make the practice of shooting an animal inside a fenced enclosure seem reasonable makes baseball's labor problems look positively pastoral. Even figure skating's mobbed-up judges seem benign by comparison. Yet the business has been especially maligned recently.
A couple of weeks ago, an organization calling itself Colorado Wildlife Defense announced that it hoped to introduce legislation that would ban so-called canned hunts. The shoots, says spokeswoman Susan Campbell Reneau, author of Colorado's Biggest Bucks and Bulls, are an insult to traditional hunting. "We find the practice to be appalling," she says. "It goes against the grain of what hunting is all about."
Reneau says she worries that canned shoots will give the public another reason to dislike real hunters, who do not shoot animals inside cages. Such a despicable practice, Reneau says, further damages the genuine sport's already dwindling support among meat-counter-shopping city dwellers.
Chronic wasting disease, too, has dealt the business of raising domesticated elk and deer herds a severe blow. Ever since the disease was found in a few ranched herds in Colorado about three years ago, the public perception of the industry has turned on gruesome plague-like images of entire herds being slaughtered and immolated in giant pits. Recently enacted state regulations designed to halt the spread of the disease have effectively crippled the business.
But believe it or not, game farms have been getting a bad rap. They are neither as outrageous nor as dangerous as their opponents would have you think.
Start with the standard protest against canned shoots -- usually from "serious" hunters -- that the practice gives legitimate hunting a bad name. While it's true that there is something inherently distasteful about killing a penned animal, it's also true that what most people would consider fair hunting disappeared long ago.
In fact, when game farms are compared with legitimate hunting, they are largely being measured against a myth. The canned shoots have given the hunting establishment the rare opportunity to occupy the high ground. For far more people than the hunting industry would care to admit, however, modern hunting has moved in the same direction as the modern porn movie: No buildup, all money shot. A significant number of hunters today are doing all they can to obtain the adrenaline of the kill without the effort of the hunt itself.
Canned shoots, for example, are widely condemned by stern-faced hunters because there is a guaranteed kill, one that requires virtually no skill on the part of the shooter. But what about guided hunts in the wild that promise virtually the same thing? For prices nearing those charged for a canned shoot, top-level guides will do everything from packing their client's horse (or ATV) and cooking his meal to finding his animal, gutting it and packing it out. As with a canned shoot, the only thing the hunter needs to do is pull the trigger.
Birds generally don't get to compete fairly with today's shootists, either. I know plenty of hunters who pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars every autumn to shoot pheasants on a preserve whose sole business is raising and feeding birds for the pleasure of hunters. The question is not whether one will go home with a bird; it's how many they'll take home.
"Fair chase" is the doctrine that animals stand a sporting chance against their human stalkers. But apply that idea to fishing. How fair is it, really, to fish in stocked ponds and streams? And it's the rare professional angler who doesn't use a sonar fish-finder -- a machine that identifies the presence of fish under the water. Isn't that stacking the deck?
Of course, there are still dedicated, serious men and women who stalk their prey for miles across rugged terrain and, more often than not, end up skunked. But there are just as many who proudly call themselves hunters while employing a range of practices that turn fair chase into an empty ethic. These tactics range from the use of jelly doughnuts to lure bears within range of a blind to shooting an elk from nearly a mile away with a .50-caliber sniper's rifle.
When you get down to it, hunting and canned shoots have the same result. The majority of hunters insist that they kill animals for the same reasons their forebears did -- to provide meat for their families. So if that's the case, why does it have to be in the woods? At least in a canned shoot you can see where meat really comes from.
There are no gut shots in a pen, no maimed animals left to die slowly. In contrast to what happens every fall in today's crowded forests, it is extremely uncommon for one hunter to accidentally kill or injure another during a canned hunt.
The moral confusion over the issue of when and how an animal may be ethically shot has sprung to life in Alberta, Canada. A few weeks ago, lawmakers there voted not to allow domesticated elk ranchers to sell their animals to hunters because fenced hunts were abhorrent to the public. But that doesn't mean the province bans all penned shoots; killing both buffalo and wild boar inside a fenced enclosure is legal.
The difference? "Buffalo and wild boar are not game animals," explains Dave Ealey, spokesman for the Alberta Department of Sustainable Resource Development. Thus, according to Alberta's logic, game animals such as elk and deer, which are managed so that they may be hunted, cannot be shot. On the other hand, animals raised to be slaughtered may be hunted. "It's all about public perception," Ealey acknowledges, which goes a long way toward explaining the vast stretches of gray surrounding this debate.
Chronic wasting disease, too, has taken an unfairly heavy toll on domesticated game ranches. For instance, the image most casual readers probably recall with the greatest clarity is the wholesale destruction late last year of domesticated elk herds discovered to be infected with the mysterious illness. That happened. But most of the infections were at a single ranch, All-American Antler Farms, where 21 of about 600 elk were found to have CWD.
According to state officials, two domestic herds remain in the "endemic" area near Fort Collins. One keeps its animals inside double fences to guarantee no contact with the wild herds. The other has been found to harbor a single infected animal and is under quarantine by the state Department of Agriculture.
Such drastic measures mean that, at the moment, domesticated herds have a far lower infection rate than the wild population. Indeed, "it is arguably possible that the domestic herds are eradicated of chronic wasting disease," says Jim Miller, director of policy and communications for the state ag department.
By comparison, depending on the game-management unit they are in, hunters stalking wild herds have as high as a 15 percent chance of killing an infected animal. Even hunters outside the endemic area have an estimated 1 percent chance of bagging a deer or elk carrying CWD.
"Most biologists I know believe that the disease is spreading from the domesticated herds," Reneau proclaims. But the truth, confirmed in a national conference held in Denver three weeks ago, is that no one really knows how chronic wasting disease spreads -- from domesticated herds to the wild or vice versa. The best researchers can do at the moment is to keep the two separated and see what happens.
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Many people have the same view of the domesticated-elk industry as the Colorado Wildlife Defense does: that is, wealthy hunters shooting trophy animals at point-blank range. That certainly goes on. Yet the business more accurately resembles that of raising alpacas and llamas. The majority of a rancher's commerce relies on animals being traded and sold between other owners, who spend thousands of dollars trying to engineer bigger, sturdier animals. At its best, it's no more than what breeders do with their horses. At worst, it is a pyramid scheme built on animals.
In Colorado, chronic wasting disease effectively has quashed that business. As the result of regulations on the verge of being adopted by the state agriculture department, elk and deer cannot be moved between facilities unless they have been observed to be disease-free for up to five years. In fact, the only realistic way an elk can leave the farm these days is gutted and cleaned.
Back in Evergreen, Ron Lewis says he's hoping to sell seven elk this year -- no hunting tag required. What he's offering "isn't even a canned hunt," he admits. "It's a planned harvest. It's far removed from hunting for two days for an elk." Think of it as a "pick your own" elk farm.
So far he's signed no contracts, although he has fielded a few curious calls. But hunting season is just around the corner. For those who want some meat for the freezer, it's two dollars a pound. Bring a sharp knife for dressing. The backhoe is on the house.