Any given morning in Irasburg, Doug and Richard Nelson can be found tending to their animals. Like most Orleans County dairymen, they’re up at the crack of dawn, puttering around the family barn. But at about 8 a.m., father and son climb into twin pickup trucks and head down a dirt road toward “Big Rack Ridge,” which is bordered by an 8-foot-tall, 6-mile-long fence.
Inside that enclosure mills a distinctly un-bovine herd. In addition to the usual deer and moose, this remote 700-acre property is brimming with some 60 macho, mean-looking elk, all of them impatient for breakfast. Up at the family’s 100-acre “Cow Town Elk Ranch” in Derby Line, there are 400 other cervus elaphuses waiting in the wings.
On a recent Sunday, a reporter tags along with the Nelsons to observe one unusual feeding ritual. After corn is dumped into a series of green plastic troughs, a squadron of the massive, 1000-pound-plus animals emerges from the forest with Discovery Channel flair. En route to the troughs, two medium-sized elk dudes bump antlers like hormonal middle-schoolers vying for sloppy Joes.
Silver-haired family patriarch Doug Nelson, 65, who sports a Western-style belt buckle and cowboy boots, observes the spectacle for 20 minutes before returning to the family dairy barn. Meanwhile, 44-year-old Richard offers the reporter a grand tour of this semi-secret garden. Firing up a silver Ford rig amid a crowd of quizzical mammals, the broad-shouldered man pinches off a wad of chewing tobacco and begins his story.
As Richard explains, this farm isn’t the only one in Vermont where “captive cervids” roam. There haven’t been any wild elk in the state since the 19th century, but 24 other Green Mountain facilities now raise such animals as elk, deer and wild boar for slaughter and commercial export. The Nelson property, however, is one of only two where you can shoot the penned creatures. Think Ernest Hemingway on the prowl in the Bronx Zoo.
To some, the Nelson “farm” is a welcome, albeit less challenging, alternative to a traditional Rocky Mountain elk hunt. But the Nelsons are wary of the “H” word. “Let’s get one thing straight,” Richard cautions, spitting tobacco juice into a can of Diet Pepsi. “This is harvesting, not hunting.”
Vermont officials beg to differ. The Agency of Agriculture has ultimate jurisdiction over this Irasburg park. But ever since the Nelson family branched out into elk hunts six years ago, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has been attempting to step in over concerns that the operation might contaminate the state’s prized whitetail deer population with “chronic wasting disease” — a relative of the infamous “mad cow” that was recently discovered in adjacent New York State. Doug and Richard disagree, claiming state officials are — ahem — blowing smoke up the general public’s collective hindquarters.
Either way, the dispute raises two crucial questions: What are the “correct” definitions of “farm” and “hunt”? And at what point should public-health considerations trump individual rights?
The Nelsons’ current saga dates back to 1992. That’s when, seeing his dairy operation threatened by low prices, Doug imported his first elk from Minnesota and Idaho. An Agency of Agriculture spokesperson confirms that Nelson’s business makeover was typical of many struggling Vermont dairymen who diversified their bottom lines during that decade by moving into game farming.
As son Richard tells it, the initial idea wasn’t to kill the elk, but rather to clip their antlers for export to Korea, where some consider them an aphrodisiac. During the Clinton years, he says, elk antlers could fetch $125 per pound, at up to 30 pounds per animal.
Simple enough, right? But by the late ’90s, cervid animals in the Midwest were coming down with chronic wasting disease (CWD). Accordingly, says Nelson Junior, Korea banned importation of elk antlers from North America, and prices tanked to $7 per pound.
That’s when things got controversial in Irasburg. In 2000, Doug and Richard built their fence and began offering elk hunts to paying visitors. Soon after, they opened a restaurant in Derby — the “Derby Cow Palace” — where hungry diners can now chow “medallions of elk” for $15.95. “When it got so we couldn’t sell breeding stock,” Richard explains — braking to let a stubborn elk cross the gravel access road — “we thought of a new way to market the animals.” His dad likes to suggest that this blunt method of killing the creatures is more “humane” than sending them to a slaughterhouse.
It’s certainly more profitable. A typical elk “hunt” on the Nelson property runs about $4000 — that’s almost double what the family would earn selling the animals for slaughter. Plus, a steady stream of elk-stalking tourists benefits local butchers, mechanics and other service providers. “I’m an awful good capitalist,” Richard insists, stopping the truck now for emphasis. “I love living in Vermont and working the land, be it dairy cows, wildlife, farming elk or whatnot. I like taking a piece of habitat and making it better for the critters.”
According to Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nelson’s argument doesn’t hold water. After six years of planning, the department has recently proposed a rule that would ban “captive-hunt” facilities all over the state. Specifically, it prohibits confinement of whitetail deer, black bear and moose, allowing the department commissioner to expand that list at any point — in theory, to include elk. The rule, which includes a grandfather clause that would allow the Nelsons to continue their critter harvest, is currently working its way through a legislative committee in Montpelier.
Predictably, the Nelsons are outraged. The family’s Barre-based lawyer, in fact, contends the rule is a Trojan horse that would allow Fish and Wildlife commissioner Wayne Laroche to shut the elk farm down. “The Department of Agriculture is fine with what we’re doing,” Richard explains coyly. “The only problem therein lies with Fish and Wildlife: They have a little more authority over my land than I would like them to have.”
Commissioner Laroche could not be reached for comment on this story — he was touring the wilds of Maine, according to his secretary. But Col. Robert Rooks, the director of the law enforcement division at the department, has plenty to say on the Nelson situation. A 29-year department vet, Rooks stresses that CWD is now the biggest threat facing fish-and-wildlife departments around New England. He suggests the proposed “captive-hunt” rule isn’t an attack on the Nelsons but an act of public service.
Besides, notes Rooks, who are they to put Vermont’s whitetail deer population in harm’s way? “Wild animals in general belong to the people of the state of Vermont,” he says, citing the state constitution. “The only time you can lawfully take an animal is during an open season that’s been declared by our legislative process. There’s really no such thing as private ownership when it comes to hunting.”
For their part, the Nelsons claim their property shouldn’t be singled out as the only threat to venerated venison. There are two dozen other such game preserves statewide, after all. And, while preserves are prime breeding grounds for CWD, they aren’t the only potential sites of contamination — the disease can be carried across state lines by wild herds of deer and moose, to say nothing of negligent hunters who might import infected carcasses from neighboring states.
The Nelsons count at least one high-ranking authority on their side of the fence. Middlebury deer farmer Hank Dimuzio, a bearded orator who happens to be treasurer of the North American Deer Farmers Association and a board member of Northeast Deer & Elk Farmers, Inc., vehemently supports the family. At an August 29 hearing in Montpelier, in fact, the cervid specialist testified on the Nelsons’ behalf before a gaggle of state legislators.
“I’m not saying [CWD] isn’t a disease; I’m just saying it’s not a disease that has the tremendous ramifications that Fish and Wildlife would want us to think,” Dimuzio says, talking with a reporter by phone last week from his Addison County homestead. “I mean — to use a ‘Monty Python’ expression — this is silly.” Though he freely admits to having a vested economic interest in downplaying CWD concerns, Dimuzio considers the disease a “non-issue” in Vermont.
Besides, he adds, the distinction between hunting and harvesting has never been all that clear in the first place. Dimuzio, a full-time emergency physician at Rutland Regional Medical Center, points out that the Department of Fish and Wildlife uses the term deer “harvest” when referring to statewide kill figures — evidence, he claims, of mixed messaging. “I think if you asked 10 different hunters to define hunting, you’d get 10 different answers,” he suggests.
But beyond the hunting and CWD questions lies another: Is the Nelson operation ethical? At the August 29 hearing, a regional spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) spoke out against the Irasburg operation. She claimed that, by allowing the Nelsons to do business, Vermont was “privatizing” its own wilderness.
That summer day, legislative documents were accompanied by a HSUS pamphlet entitled “STOP Drive-Thru Killing.” It suggests that the proprietors of so-called “canned hunt” facilities take advantage of “legislative limbo” to disobey traditional hunting ethics. “There is no sport in canned hunting,” it reads. “What luster can a bought ‘trophy’ have?”
The phrase “drive-thru killing” paints an ugly picture and poses a question: Even if the Nelsons are operating within their legal rights, is their operation — as daddy Doug insists — really a “humane” alternative to slaughter?
Damn right it is, says Richard — and then some. Floored by a rush of emotion, the elk expert speaks of his family shooting hollow as if it were a shamanic-healing center. “I’ve had grown men sit right down and cry after shooting an animal, they’re so happy,” he notes at one point, while weaving through streams of majestic, slightly confused beasts. “My goal is for people to enjoy themselves, and for the animals not to feel any pain. Most of the time, that’s exactly what happens.”
As for the animal-rights argument, he already has a slick rebuttal primed for discharge. “I eat meat, I wear leather, and I look at what I’m doing as a benefit to my property,” Nelson riffs, nearing the end of today’s tour. “If people that wear leather and eat meat want to discuss [my business] with me, then they’re being hypocritical.”
Nelson’s own arguments about elk farming, however, are tinged with hypocrisy. Despite maintaining that his business is an agricultural one, he’s spent the morning touting his so-called “hunts” as more “affordable” than a real, Western-style shooting expedition. And, though he’s gracious enough to devote over an hour to showing a reporter around his property, he asks that his animals not be photographed beside the 8-foot-high fence.
“We’re just . . . helping,” Nelson says, sliding the truck into neutral and stepping out to unhinge the metal fence gate. Above his head, the sun is out in full force, and a hawk begins to circle above a nearby field of dead milkweed and cattails. Standing on a distant bluff, the closest crew of elk looks a little bored. It’s as if the animals were killing time before a church service in stiff Sunday duds.
“We’re . . . filling a niche,” Nelson declares. “And if no one wanted to do this, we wouldn’t be in the business.
OTHER HUNTING STORIES IN THIS ISSUE:
Intro by Paula Routly
by Patrick Ripley
by Margot Harrison
by Suzanne Podhaizer
by Suzanne Podhaizer