By Associated Press Writer
updated 9/7/2006 10:00:00 AM ET 2006-09-07T14:00:00

More than 100 domesticated elk have escaped from a private game reserve on the border of Yellowstone National Park in eastern Idaho, raising fears the animals will blemish the genetic purity of wild herds, spread disease and flummox hunters.

The elk apparently broke through a fence weeks ago on the Chief Joseph hunter's reserve near Rexburg, on the fringe of the Targhee National Forest, 10 miles from the southwestern border of Yellowstone.

"This is the train wreck we've seen coming for a long time," Steve Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said Wednesday in announcing the escape.

In 2002, Rex Rammell, Chief Joseph's owner and a longtime veterinarian, successfully lobbied the Idaho Legislature to forgive most of the more than $750,000 he owed to the state for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags to identify the animals as domestic. Regulators also said he improperly maintained protective fencing on an elk ranch 35 miles east of Rexburg.

Rammell also has clashed with the state Department of Agriculture over his refusal to allow state regulators to inspect his specially bred trophy bull elk for chronic wasting disease. The incurable disease kills elk by boring tiny holes in their brains.

Wildlife officials fear the domestic elk could spread the disease, which has never been found in Idaho, or other sicknesses like brucellosis, liver flukes and tuberculosis.

Other concerns trail behind the escape. Archery season for elk began Aug. 30, and Huffaker said hunters will be unable to distinguish between wild elk, which are legal to shoot, and the domestic elk, which are private property.

Rammell told the state Agriculture Department that the elk are tagged, but they might not have tags identifiable from at least 150 yards away, as state law requires, said Debra Lawrence, the agency's chief of animal health and livestock.

Department inspectors already have determined that Rammell's fencing was up to par, she said. The elk likely charged the fence until they created a large hole.

She said inspectors must complete their investigation before they decide whether to fine Rammell.

"To be honest with you, this is just a rotten piece of luck for Mr. Rammell," Lawrence said.

Idaho code releases individual hunters and the state from financial or legal liability if a domestic animal that has been loose for more than seven days is mistakenly killed.

Still, whether Rammell decides to sue confused hunters for compensation is anyone's guess, Huffaker said. Rammell did not return calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday.

"It's a mess, that's all I know," Huffaker said. "I've never been a big fan of domestic elk. I figure elk are in the wild and that's the way God made them."

On Wednesday, none of the elk had been recaptured. Yellowstone National Park wildlife officials said they are unlikely to even see one of the domestic elk unless the animals travel main roads or trails.

"It's an awful big park," spokesman Al Nash said.

Steve Schmidt, a Fish and Game regional supervisor, said Rammell did not report the loss to state officials. Several nearby landowners reported the escape and continue to relay sightings of suspected domestic elk in the surrounding alfalfa fields and forest slopes, he said.

Another concern is that the domestic elk, which could be unafraid of humans and overly docile, will breed with wild elk and dilute the native gene pool.

"Local elk should be displaying superior genetics," he said. "Elk from other places may not be as well-adapted."

But, Lawrence, of the agriculture department, said the so-called dumbing-down of the gene pool is an overblown worry.

"They're the same species," she said. "The traits for surviving in the wild are the same. An elk will not come out different colors if they breed."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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