Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 12:54 PM
Just down the street, you might say, the state’s largest domestic elk herd has quietly grown alongside U.S. Highway 89, barely 10 miles north of downtown Ogden.
Larger than deer, the elk can easily be seen by the hundreds, meandering about in a square mile of alfalfa. Sometimes the lumbering ungulates will amble within yards of the fenceline along the east side of U.S. 89.
The latest head count recorded by state livestock officials in July was 744. And mating season approaches next month. All just a mile past the Weber-Box Elder county line.
Wandering close enough to the 10-foot fence at times are bulls with the remnant stubs on their foreheads clearly visible where the antlers were shorn, the velvet skin still showing that would have sloughed off when the rack matured. And numbered tags in their ears.
A big part of “elk farming,” as the 1997 enabling statute labels it, is selling antlers to the Far East. Oriental cultures ascribe to them medicinal purposes, such as aphrodisia.
The bigger bulls, with intact racks the size of rocking chairs, don’t seem to approach the highway fenceline. They stay further up in the foothills. Which is where the private hunts are held.
The White Peaks Ranch, formal address listed as Willard, is also a fenced hunting park for elk, generating fees from $4,000 to $10,000 for guide-led, three-day hunts with a 100-percent success rate, as White Peaks’ websites guarantee.
In five to seven years, the racks, which shed and grow back annually, are likely as big as they’ll get. At which point the beast’s value peaks as a trophy animal rather than for antler harvest, or the slowly growing market for elk meat.
“Cabela’s has an elk sandwich,” said Larry Lewis, state agriculture spokesman. “But the biggest part may be the Asian market.”
And domestic elk antlers, officials estimate, can grow as much as 20 percent larger than those of their wild cousins.
White Peaks owner Randy Marriott, also founder of Plain City-based Randy Marriott Construction, did not return phone calls, but his ranch is well-known to state regulators.
Marriott’s is by far the largest of Utah’s 35 domestic elk farms and 12 elk-hunting parks. Only five have more than 100 elk, said Cody James, head of livestock inspections in the state ag department, putting the current domestic elk head count at 2,341 in Utah.
The statute says elk farm, but it’s ranching, officials say.
But much different than cattle ranching.
“Elk need more of a natural habitat,” James said. “And a lot more room, as the bulls tend to fight more.”
With cattle, a rancher only needs a certain number of bulls for breeding, said Darren Dublois, northern regional game biologist for the state Division of Wildlife Resources.
“But with elk they’re selling antlers a lot, so you need a lot more bulls than a cattle ranch,” Dublois said.
“So there’s a lot more fighting. It can be a rodeo sometimes, I’m sure.”
The bouts coincide with mating season. Other than that, as hormones subside, the bulls regularly hang out together in what Dublois called bachelor groups of five or ten. But the adventurous bachelors never do otherwise mingle with the cows and their young, he said, who stay with their mothers a year or two.
Marriott started White Peaks in 2010, with a big expansion last fall when he moved the fenceline down to abut U.S. 89.
Then the DWR conservation officers, aka game wardens, were fielding numerous calls from the curious upon seeing the roadside elk. White Peaks has no signage beyond small “domestic elk, no trespassing” notices on the fence
It became a regular roadside attraction for awhile, said Mike Kinghorn, conservation officer for east Box Elder County, with numerous cars pulling off by the side of the road wondering what all the elk were doing in some farmer’s field. The calls subsided when the bigger bulls were apparently moved up the hillside, he said.
Regulations require an elk-hunting park to have a minimum of 600 acres, almost a square mile, James said. And Marriott’s is one of the best, he said, praising the lack of any problems with White Peak’s operations over the years overseen by his department.
The hunt area has to meet certain criteria, James said, such as sufficient trees, appropriate habitat, more rugged terrain “to make it a natural experience for the elk and a challenge to the hunter.”
Marriott also operates a hunting area in southeast Idaho under the White Peaks name, although the land is not connected. His websites promise more than 4,000 acres of private fenced forest with the two locations.
The websites also show off the giant racks the animals grow, with photos of numerous eight-point and several nine-point antler spreads. The racks are often taller than the hunters posing with them.
In the wild, elk antlers are typically six- or seven-point at best, officials said.
The giant racks make for strong necks.
“Amazingly strong,” Dublois said. “Basically, their whole body is built to carry that thing around.”
He once saw an elk bull, which can max at 900 pounds, scoop a 500-pound cow with its antlers and toss it over his back.
“It was just once. At Hardware Ranch.” The state preserve in Cache County puts out hay bales for elk in the winter.
“She got in the way as he was getting to his feed.”
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