Driggs, ID (AP) — Rancher Kent Bagley and his sons Greg and Stephen derive almost a third of their income from agricultural tourism, and their farm-raised elk are the main attraction.
The Bagleys bought their first 15 elk in the late 1990s, seeking to diversify their beef and dairy business. They've since given up the dairy, focusing on elk and beef cows.
As with the dairy market, elk prices have ebbed and flowed — and while values of most farm commodities have declined lately, Stephen said elk meat, antlers and bulls raised for penned hunting operations have all risen.
But even when the economy crashed in 2008 and elk ranches were closing in Idaho, domestic Cervidae continued to earn their keep for the Bagleys, thanks to tourism. Through www.elkadventures.com, their ranch offers overnight trips and day rides, which make stops by the elk pastures, and they take the public on paid bus tours of their elk operation. They also have a gift shop and rent cabins.
"People love to see those baby elk, and we can get them right up close," Stephen said, adding his proximity to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park ensures a steady supply of visitors.
Stephen explained raising elk requires investing in separate handling facilities. The animals are skittish and slower to develop than cattle, requiring more than four years before they're ready to sell.
The industry is also heavily regulated. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture charges a $10 per head fee on domestic elk to fund its Cervidae program, including inspections and investigations into escapes. Furthermore, owners must test 10 percent of their elk post-slaughter, and all of the elk that die unexpectedly.
According to ISDA's most recent estimates, the state has about 50 commercial elk ranches that produce about 6,000 calves per year.
"(The elk industry) has crept up a little bit in the last couple of years," said ISDA deputy state veterinarian Scott Leibsle, noting the easing of regulations on elk importation has contributed to the increase.
The Bagleys have about 240 elk. They sell dropped antlers for craft-making, dog chews and use as anti-inflammatory supplement in Asian countries. Antlers cut while still in velvet are the most valuable. They've paused their meat sales in recent years to build their herd but plan to resume supplying meat to customers, such as Jackson Hole restaurants, this fall.
Bull elk sold to Idaho's many penned hunting operations — controversial private operations where hunters are guaranteed success — fetch the best prices, upwards of $6,000 per animal, depending on antler size.
"Definitely the shooter-bull market right now is where the elk market is," Greg said. "Now I can supply 15 bulls per year, and I have demand for 100 bulls per year."
Jeff Lerwill, who serves on the Idaho Elk Breeder's Association, and his wife Alana, operate a fenced hunting preserve in Sugar City, comprising 5 miles of rugged, private terrain where trophies include elk, buffalo and Texas dall sheep. They raise some of their own elk and host about 50 elk hunts during a busy year.
"We've been hunting for 10 years," Alana Lerwill said. "In the beginning, we could buy shooter bulls for $2,000. We're lucky if we can buy them now for $5,000."