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The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the end of freedom in America

By Scott Carpenter
web posted March 4, 2002

Free association can create powerful private interests but it shouldn't - at least not in a just society - create powerful public interests. Indeed, an organization that moves from voluntary cooperation and education to reliance on the legislature to achieve its ends has overstepped its boundaries and become an enemy of what little liberty we have left on this continent.

I can name a dozen or more organizations of this nature right off the top of my head. Some of them are religious in nature, some political and some - like PeTA - are just simply over the edge. But I never - not in a million years - thought any organization I belonged to would walk this path. At least not until I got my latest copy of 'Bugle' magazine in the mail.

Bugle is - for those of you who are not familiar with it - the masthead of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The RMEF is an organization whose primary goal is to secure critical habitat for wild free ranging elk and other animals. They do this - as such things should be accomplished - through the purchase of critical lands via voluntary contributions and through selling memberships to the organization itself. In short - it is a charitable association of people who see value in the existence of wild places and wild critters. It is - or at least was - a noncoercive entity that purchased private lands and made them (at least in a sense) public and accessible to all creatures - both two legged and four.

But when I opened my latest issue of Bugle to the back page - to take in as I always do Dan Crockett's eloquent 'Good hunting' column - I was left to face the fact that as an individual concerned with freedom first I may be forced to cancel my membership with the RMEF.

Montana, Canned Hunts and I-143

For those of you 'not in the know' there has been a lot of debate amongst the hunting community in past years - particularly in Bugle magazine and other mainstream hunting and fishing rags - over the issue of canned hunts.

Canned hunts are a simple concept for simple people. They amount to little more than shooting fish in a barrel and, in my opinion, are strictly for those 'hunters' lacking a degree of moral fiber.

Indeed, sportsman who are concerned with public perception see the practice of hunting animals in enclosures - regardless of size - as a black eye to the honest pursuit of wild game. In fact, the issue has been so hot that in some states and provinces various special interests have risen to 'put and end' to the practice of shooting penned in animals.

A recent news release from the Montana Wildlife Federation tells the tale of how an issue of ethics has quickly been blown into an issue of law:

"On November 7 sportsmen and sportswomen won a key victory when Montanans voted to control the reckless game farm industry and put an end to unethical "canned hunts" on game farms. The initiative passed by a 52-48 margin."

"I-143 was a simple and straightforward effort 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. I-143 will amend state law to: 1) prohibit all new game farms in the state of Montana. 2) Existing game farms in Montana will continue to operate, but will be prohibited from charging fees for captive big game shooting operations. 3) Existing game farms will be prohibited from transferring their licenses to any other party. 4) I-143 also repeals provisions of the law concerning expansion of existing game farms."

The news release from the MWF continues by stating that: "Contrary to assertions made by game farmers in the weeks before the election, I-143 will not constitute a violation, or takings, of private property rights.

Historical precedent and recent case law is 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."

Indeed, this is true. In a society of laws based on the right of individuals to hold and enjoy property no one has the right to use that property to violate the equal rights of others. But the assertion that this law does not violate property rights - at least as a matter of reason - does not hold water.

While penned hunts are certainly unethical from a 'fair chase' point of view the fact remains that not everyone adheres to the same set of ethics - nor should they. And since owning, farming and killing elk in pens for pleasure does not directly infringe on the equal rights of others banning its practice is indeed a violation of the property rights of those ranchers it serves precedence over. Only in rare cases where penned elk spread disease to neighboring livestock or wildlife is there room for grievance. But this in and of itself is not sufficient reason to outlaw - regardless of how unethical it may seem - the practice of catering canned hunts.

The Elk Foundation and Crockett's Confusion...

I-143 passed into law almost undetected by my 'bad law' radar and would have remained so if it weren't for Dan Crockett's most recent column in Bugle magazine. In it Crockett writes of the dying breaths of one of Montana's last elk hunting farms:

"The buy/sell on the biggest elk farm in Montana is down to the last niggling details. Len Wallace, owner of the 6,000 acre Big Velvet Ranch, has had enough of Big Sky Country."

"'I want to move back to America,' says Wallace. America," snipes Crockett, "presumably, is some place where the people have not decreed - by statewide ballot initiative - that they don't want elk farms or any hunts that target domestically raised native big game animals held in captivity."

Hmm. Actually Dan, rumor has it that America used to be a place where there was room enough for everyone. From Christians and atheists, hunters and vegetarians to potato farmers and even those despicable game ranchers. We used to tolerate one another out of respect for each individual's right to choose his or her own path in this world - regardless of how unethical we deemed that path to be.

Yet somehow, either through sheer stupidity or downright sloth we have arrived at the conclusion that since we can reach a 50.1 to 49.9 victory via the vote we may have the moral authority to do whatever to whomever we please. In short, America has gone from a democracy tempered by the rule of law and the rights of men to a majority rules dictatorship. But as history teaches us: having the majority on your side does not automatically make you right no matter how noble your cause may seem.

So, in adopting this position Bugle and the RMEF have moved from what once made America great to what rots her from the inside out. Indeed, the idea that men should be ruled by the tyranny of the majority flies in the face of the very concept of freedom itself. And if the RMEF and their friends at the Montana Wildlife Federation had simply let the debate roar or ponied up the cash to buy those hunt farms out without getting the state involved then they'd still have my time and my cash. But instead they took the lazy way out and sought reconciliation through the use of the blunt and all too often wielded sword of government. In the end they've lowered themselves to the same level as PETA and their ilk. How unfortunate. How terribly tragic.

Crockett and the Red Horde....

"The good news is,"continues Crockett, "that the future owner of the Big Velvet Ranch (Who already owns 11,000 adjoining acres) plans to tear down the game proof fences and restore the area to its natural state.... Who knows, maybe the new owner will let a horde of happy volunteers help lay those fences low... we could heap up a fine pyre of fence poles, light a raucous bonfire. Some of us might even use our unfilled elk tags as tinder. We might raise a toast to America - the land of the free."

It's ironic or perhaps appropriate that Mr. Crockett uses the term 'horde' to describe his gang of 'defencers'. Perhaps he doesn't realize that as long as America the 'horde' rules, America the 'land of the free' will always be a distant republican myth. At any rate, I won't be renewing my membership to the RMEF this year. Indeed, I'd rather be an unethical 'canned hunter' than a member of Crockett's red defencing 'horde' any day.

And I suspect this will be a hard pill for the hunting community and my local RMEF chapter to swallow. We've been so concerned with public perception and fuzzy wuzzy metaphors for so long that we've ultimately forgotten our roots. The truth is: public perception is far less important than remembering those few simple but profound words: that We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I'm curious - I wonder what ever lead Mr. Crockett and crew to believe their vision of happiness was the right one?

Ultimately, it is this simple recipe for living that should not only protect people like Mr. Wallace but our treasured hunting heritage as well. Respecting our differences and agreeing to disagree is the American way - beating our ethical opponents into submission with the battered blade of the state is not. In the end if we cannot understand this - if we cannot embrace the simple principle of liberty - then our beloved heritage is already lost.

As for Mr. Wallace, may you and your comrades forgive me and the others who did not know and I hope some day - for your sake and for mine - that you do find your America.

Scott Carpenter is a freelance writer and firearms dealer living in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. His articles and columns have appeared in BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Big Buck Magazine, Laissez Faire City Times, Le Quebecois Libre, Ether Zone, Enter Stage Right and the Sierra Times. He can be reached for comment at nanook@pris.bc.ca.

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