PILLAGER -- Gary Tank doesn't remember where he was when news arrived that chronic wasting disease had been found in Minnesota, but the events that followed are not forgotten.
The Pillager elk and deer farmer says the discovery of CWD and its aftermath has had a "devastating" impact on his business. He isn't alone. Since CWD was found in a pen-raised elk near Aitkin on Aug. 29, 2002, none of the state's 264 elk farmers has been able to move animals on or off their farms.
"We had 12 elk and 10 deer ready for sale to a ranch in Missouri," Tank recalls. "But when we called to get the import permit numbers we were told they could no longer accept animals from Minnesota."
Other states followed suit. Now Tank and his fellow elk farmers are stuck with animals they can't sell. That amounts to an estimated 10,966 head of elk valued at more than $26 million. Pre-CWD, the value of Tank's herd was more than $500,00. Today?
"God only knows," Tank said. "The variables are too many. But I must find a way to cash in on these animals. I can't afford to keep them all. At the rate we're going now we'll be bankrupt in a year or less."
To recoup his investment, Tank is selling animals to anybody who will take them. A sign on his fence facing Highway 210 reads, "Elk for sale, dead or alive." For $800 to $2,500 you can shoot an elk and haul it away. If sold by traditional means a large bull would have brought $7,000 to $10,000, depending on the size of the animal.
Nobody claims this is sport, Tank said, and though he's sold 23 animals this way since last fall he's not making money.
The DNR frowns on Tank's ploy. In February he was charged with running a game farm without a license. He could have paid $144, ceased the operation and the DNR would have dropped the case. Tank chose to go to trial instead. A hearing took place April 3 in Cass County District Court and June 5 a judge ruled he was not guilty.
"The DNR didn't have a leg to stand on," said Tank, who has 60 elk and deer remaining on his farm. "They said it's illegal to shoot animals in captivity, but it's not. They just don't want it done here in Minnesota. I've looked at all the statutes and I asked them to tell me which one makes it illegal to do what I'm doing. They can't because there isn't one."
Tank spent $8,400 defending himself but his trials aren't over. On July 2, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture notified Tank by mail that it would "commence regulatory sanctions" if he continues to allow people to shoot elk on his farm. The letter, signed by Kevin Elfering, interim director of the meat inspection division, said, in part, "Please be advised that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture does not believe that this type of operation is a legal method of processing livestock. ... We will only allow you to slaughter animals on your premises for personal use or the use of your household and non-paying guests and employees."
Tank is bracing for another court battle. Shooting preserves are illegal in Minnesota but the law doesn't say it's illegal to shoot an elk behind a fence. That technicality is what Tank says will tip the case in his favor. Lack of clarity in the law is why he believes he will win the case. Paul Strandberg, legal counsel for the Department of Agriculture, said the agency is concerned with food safety and nothing more.
"According to law farm cervidae are considered livestock," Strandberg said. "That means they must be inspected before and after they're killed. People shooting animals willy-nilly isn't the best hygiene. You can shoot a cow or elk on your property but can't use the meat unless it's inspected anti-mortem and post-mortem."
Tank said he believes the DNR and Department of Agriculture are making him a scapegoat.
"Other farmers are doing this, too," Tank said. "But they're more than happy to stay out of the limelight. I'm here because I sit on the Cervidae Advisory Board and I'm 100 percent reliant on this industry for my income. They're trying to make an example out of me. Well, so be it. I won't back down."
Tank says DNR employees Wayne Edgerton, director of agricultural policy, and Ed Boggess and Mike Don Carlos, both of the Division of Wildlife, have a personal vendetta against him and his operation. Since the early 1990s, he said, it's been their agenda to put Minnesota's deer and elk farmers out of business.
"Now they're using CWD as an excuse," Tank said. "There's no way the deer and elk farmers in this state will be able to comply with all the new regulations."
Edgerton said Tank's allegations are ridiculous.
"We've worked with cervidae producers for a number of years," Edgerton said. "We have a good relationship with them. I don't know how he came to that conclusion. The allegation just isn't fair. I don't know what his agenda is."
Tank also produces Fatal Attractor, a urine scent hunters use to attract deer. Typically scent sales are 50 percent of his annual income. Since the CWD scare scent sales have dropped by one-third, Tank said, despite any evidence that the disease is transmitted through urine. Lack of demand has Tank producing less than half of the Fatal Attractor he usually would and his income has dropped by $120,000 to $180,000, he said.
"I've been on the road trying to get orders but they're slow in coming," Tank said. "Cody (an employee) has been here trying to keep the farm afloat and my wife took a job in town. It's difficult. We have four kids and the oldest is 14. She's been doing all the baby-sitting."
In February, Tank returned from a trade show in Reno, Nev., and discovered the family dog had been shot, the office adjacent to his barn had been broken into and the file cabinets rifled. Missing were lists of animals, elk breeders and people who buy and sell animals.
"I've got guns and bows right here that are worth thousands of dollars," Tank said, pointing to the walls and ceiling. "My cordless drill and a bunch of other tools were right here. That's the stuff a thief would take.
"Who wants lists of deer breeders? I say the DNR. They wrote a letter to the president of the deer breeder's association saying they had nothing to do with it and if they did they would follow up on it. But I've never heard anything."
If a market doesn't develop for farm-raised deer and elk in Minnesota the industry will die, Tank said. If that happens one of Minnesota's oldest and most profitable cervidae farms will close its gates.
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