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Elk Farmer finds new way to make money
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A sign in front of the Gary Tank farm near Pillager shows Tank's frustration with the market for elk. He's accepting money from customers who want to shoot an elk. The Department of Agriculture says Tank's plan is illegal and inhumane. (MPR Photo/Tim Post )
Elk farmers in Minnesota are facing tough times. The fear of chronic wasting disease has cut into the market for elk meat. For some farmers new regulations to limit the spread of the disease prevents them from selling their animals at all. One central Minnesota elk farmer says he's found a way to make money in the struggling industry. But state officials say the farmer's approach is illegal and inhumane.

Pillager, Minn. — Elk farming has been in Gary Tank's family for nearly 40 years. Tank raises 35 elk here on his farm carved out of the woods west of Brainerd. His animals feed at a trough behind an 8-foot-tall fence that criss-crosses his property.

The animals are tall, too. They're 8 feet, from the ground to the tips of their horns. These big bull elk weigh up to half a ton, and they're hungry. It costs up to $350 a year to fill their stomachs with grain. That wasn't a problem when business was good. But last year a farm-raised elk in Aitkin County, a couple counties to the east, tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

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Image Gary Tank

CWD is a fatal brain disease that affects elk and deer. So far there's no proof the disease can be passed to humans or other animals. But the fear of CWD among consumers slowed demand for elk meat. To limit the spread of CWD, many states require that elk farmers prove they've tested for the disease for three to five years. Farmers who haven't tested, like Tank, are hard pressed to find markets for their animals.

So Tank came up with another way to get rid of his elk. A sign near the entrance to his farm says "Elk bulls for sale, dead or alive".

"We look at the elk we let them pick one out it's kind of a negotiation process to figure out how much it's going to cost," Tank says. "They can either shoot it themselves or have me do it. If they want to shake the feed bucket they can, otherwise I turn them (the elk) loose in a large enclosure and let them go after them that way."

Tank says he got rid of 15 elk that way last year, and he hopes to get rid of 15 more this fall.

But the Minnesota Department of Agriculture says that's illegal. Since farmed elk are considered livestock by law, they can't be shot like wild game. Kevin Elfering is the Department's Director of Dairy, Food and Meat Inspection.

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Image Feeding time at the farm

"Livestock are to be handled a certain way. You don't put an ad in the newspaper that says 'Come out and shoot a cow in my yard,'" he says. "These animals have to be treated humanely and they have to be slaughtered humanely."

Humane slaughter of livestock according to state law requires that animal is killed by one blow, such as a gunshot to the head. Elfering says it could take customers at Tank's farm several shots to down an elk. Elfering says it's a shame that CWD has destroyed the elk market for farmers like Gary Tank. But he says in this case there's no getting around the law.

"If we receive a complaint, we are going to investigate it. These are criminal violations, we would look at some sort of sanction if he were to have a violation," Tank says.

Elfering says if Tank doesn't stop offering his elk up to be shot, he could be fined, prosecuted by the Cass County Attorney, or his elk could be confiscated.

For his part Gary Tank thinks the the law regarding humane slaughter is open for interpretation. Tank says he thinks what he's doing is humane and legal. He says customers are willing to pay up to $2,500 to shoot an elk for its meat and its rack of horns. That's only half of what Tank would make selling an elk on the market. But it's money he won't let the state or public perception stop him from making.

"I have four children I have to feed. I have payments on the farm just like everyone else does, and I still need to be able to make those payments," Tank says. "Whether they like that or not, I really don't care. I'm not trying to rub it in their face, but I also don't care about being politically correct. Enough's enough and I'm trying to save the family farm."

Gary Tank says he'll keep taking money from customers for the opportunity to shoot elk on his farm. He's prepared to go to court over the issue.

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