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Published February 22, 2011, 01:41 PM

ND elk operator looks to lawmakers for steady rule

HAZEN, N.D. — Dwight Grosz would say he is in the “farming” business. He raises his elks — the bulls, the cows, the calves — much as a rancher might. But from a marketing standpoint, Grosz is in the “hunt” business. That can controversial to some people.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

HAZEN, N.D. — Dwight Grosz would say he is in the “farming” business. He raises his elks — the bulls, the cows, the calves — much as a rancher might.

But from a marketing standpoint, Grosz is in the “hunt” business. That can controversial to some people.

Customer typically want Grosz’s elk for meat, but also for wall mounts they can hang up at home. They choose an animal they can afford, come to this corner of North Dakota and pay a premium to shoot it themselves, usually in a 320-acre area. His business has survived attempts to ban it — first in the 2007 Legislature and then in an initiated measure. He is concerned there will be future attempts, so he and others in the business are working for greater regulation in state law to clarify their rights.

Grosz and his allies drafted a bill in the 2011 Legislature — SB2332 — that would require uniform bills of sale for animals and meat harvested on big game preserves, to help with identification. It also defines “cervidae livestock” — animals with cloven hooves, such as elk, as “part of farming and the agricultural industry of this state” and specifies the “rights, privileges, opportunities as other agricultural enterprises.” The bill got a 5-2 do-pass recommendation of the full Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. The elk growers are allied with the North Dakota Deer Growers in an organization called Citizens to Preserve North Dakota Property Rights.

The bill would increase the fee to $300 to get a game farm license from the North Dakota Agriculture Department, to pay for the other rules, regarding elk and deer. They define a big game preserve as land “where game and non-native wildlife, other than game birds, are harvested.” There can’t be wild deer going in and out of a fence.

Grosz says he’s put in a lot of sweat equity into his operation in the past 13 years and doesn’t want to see it go to waste.

“Rules and regulations are good, but it’s more important that they stay consistent,” Grosz says. “If you’re going into a business, you look up the rules and know what they are. You weigh the pros and cons. Who’s going to invest in America or North Dakota if you never know if the rules are going to be yanked out from under you tomorrow?”

Cycles, coal, cervidae

The Grosz family has been in North Dakota since 1898. They were among the Germans from Russia and started farming in the Stanton area, but lost the place in the Dirty Thirties and moved near Hazen, where they bought land for seven bucks an acre.

The farmstead, south of Hazen, is on marginal soil, with side hill seeps.

“You can have clay on one end, mud in the middle and sand on the other end,” Grosz says of his fields. “If you think you’re going to compete with Red River Valley soil, raising wheat, it doesn’t happen.”

The Grosz family concentrated on dairy so they could use all of the land as grazing.

Dwight was born in December 1956. He had one older sister and then a younger brother and sister. He graduated high school in 1975, but didn’t want to milk cows. In 1978, he landed a job running the big coal hauling trucks in a local mine. Almost from the start, he farmed on the side. He raced motorcycles and met Roberta at a race. She was from the area. They were married in June 1984.

In 1985, Dwight’s father, Byron, sold his 30 dairy cows and went into beef and farming.

“He’d artificially inseminated all of his dairy cows, and they were top of the line,” Grosz recalls. “He sold them $1,300 apiece, which was good back then.”

Dwight and Roberta initially bought a quarter of land, but accumulated a section and rented some other farmland, for a total of 900 acres. They dropped some leased land in the dry years from 1988 to 1992, but stuck with farming.

Starting in elk

In 1993, the Groszes went to Marketplace in Bismarck, N.D., where they attended a buffalo association meeting. Marketplace was sponsored by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture and hosted by the office of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

They quickly realized they didn’t have enough acres for bison.

“So l went to the Elk Growers, and there they were, too,” Dwight says. “I was looking at something to complement the farming operation. With elk, you put a fence around it, you plant wheat and corn and sunflowers, and you let the elk fall-graze the sunflowers. An elk or a buffalo will go out and get it in deep snow, where a beef animal won’t.”

They started gearing up for the elk, building an 8-foot-high fence for a few animals around 40 acres. Elk are under the jurisdiction of the North Dakota Board of Animal Health. The rules are designed to keep elk in the fences and wild deer out for disease issues.

The Groszes started with seven head in 1997 and every year added another 40 acres and more animals.

“We found that there are a lot of costs with elk,” Dwight says.

In 1998, Byron put his land in to the Conservation Reserve Program and, in 2002, sold it to Dwight and Roberta. They put that into the elk operation.

Initially, the Groszes were looking at a market for elk meat. Briefly, pharmaceutical companies talked about a market for elk antlers, focusing on Chondroitin and Glucosamine, but found a cheaper, more plentiful supply in seaweed.

Meat markets were somewhat limited. Among other practical limitations: A live animal can only go from one permitted facility to another, and there are only seven permitted facilities in the state. Three are federal and the inspection is cost-prohibitive. Four facilities are state-regulated and are largely unavailable from late November to March becaue of deer processing.

Wide-open enclosures

Today, they have about 200 animals in two breeding groups. Each of the herd bulls has a “harem” of about 22 cows.

Over time, the Grosz elk operation increased to 640 acres, all fenced. There’s a lot of cross-fencing within that to keep the herd bulls 200 to 300 feet from each other, for their own safety.

The herd typically includes about 100 bulls of various ages — yearlings, or “spikes,” and then 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. They end up with about 20 mature 6-year-olds. Typically, bulls need to be 6 years or better for the hunting market because of the quality of their “mane,” similar to a lion.

“They need to have a large head and neck — the whole cape,” he says.

With bulls age 2 and older, he also sells the antlers “in velvet” to markets in Asia.

“Over there, they have the ‘wolf berry,’ and once the antler is dry, they mix it in there, and that’s a catalyst for their aphrodisiacs and arthritis medicines,” he says.

Grosz invested thousands a hydraulic squeeze chute for safer and gentler handling while removing antlers.

The ‘relational’ hunt

In 2002, Grosz started selling hunts. He reaches potential customers through a website and a national magazine advertisement. He says it’s important that he “sell North Dakota” and the experience.

“When people are here, we take care of them,” he says.

Most of the customers stay in a local hotel and patronize local businesses.

Hunts are “relational” and customers are from all over, but often from urban areas in the East.

“They call and tell me what they want to spend — what their thoughts are,” Grosz says of his customers.

He has to separate out the animals they want, and jokes that, “If you shoot the wrong one — a monster — you might have to call home and mortgage the house.”

Customers range from experienced hunters to newbies.

“Some of them are women who have never shot anything in their life,” he says.

Some are either on their way to a conventional elk hunt in Montana or on their way home.

“We’ve had people who have been out there hunting in Montana for 15 years. Maybe they’ve shot small ones, maybe they’ve gotten nothing, but they stop here, harvest a big one, put it on their wall,” Grosz says. “I tell people who are 18 top 35 and able-bodied, able-bodied and young, don’t make this your first stop. But keep me in mind for when you’re done. I get some disabled people, people with lung disease that can’t take the mountains (for conventional hunts), and the stress of it.”

Many customers enjoy the rustic North Dakota atmosphere and the novelty of it all.

“They come out here and can’t believe North Dakota. They’re like, ‘I can’t believe we drive around with guns hanging in the back window of your pickup.’ To them, it’s the Wild West.”

There is a wide price range. Grosz charges about $600 for a cow and sells about 20 of those a year.

“They’re not for a ‘hunt,’ per se,” he says. “A lot of local people want some meat and they want to shoot it themselves. To them, it’s on-farm slaughter.”

Bull hunts start at about $3,500 for 6-year-olds. Most customers pay about $4,500 animal. He’s sold one for about $10,000. That one probably would score a 430 on the Safari Club International scoring system.

“The highest price on the website is $15,000, but I’ve never sold one for that,” he says.

The elk business accounts for about 20 percent of the Grosz family income. Crop farming accounts for another 20 percent. Dwight continues in the coal mines, and Roberta works part time at a bakery.

Politics and philosophy

In 2006, Grosz became aware of a group that called itself Hunters for Fair Chase. They were against high-fence hunting — essentially what he was doing. He’d never heard the term before.

Grosz attended one of their meetings in Bismarck. The group said that to be “fair chase,” the game animal “must have the wit, quickness and means to escape the hunter.” They were against hunting preserves like his.

In the 2007 Legislature, there was a bill that would ban high-fence hunting. Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society of the United States president and chief executive officer, wrote letters to the editor opposing ranch hunts SB2254. The group said the “canned” hunts on elk farms had “earned the ire” of the HSUS. The bill died 3 to 44 in the Senate.

In 2008, the Fair Chase Committee went forward with an initiated measure. In March 2008, Grosz attended a public forum in Jamestown, N.D., sponsored by the United Sportsmen of North Dakota, Jamestown chapter. The buffalo and elk producers showed up for a debate, and it got contentious.

Grosz started monitoring hunting and wildlife blogs, where HSUS members or allies would make arguments against ranch hunts.

“They say a lot of things — that we shoot them tied up to a fence, or that on-farm slaughter is illegal, or that we are ‘loop-holing’ the law by calling it hunting,” he says. “They really beat us up.”

In one message, Pacelle urged blog readers to stop “the trophy shooting of captive animals behind fences — an inhumane and unsportsmanlike practice opposed by hunters and non-hunters alike,” saying it offered wealthy customers the opportunity to “kill tame, captive animals for guaranteed trophies.”

Grosz, his friends and relatives, started getting into blog “duels” with some of the anti-canned hunt advocates, and sometimes were banned from a particular blog site for their persistence. He started to see cross-connections between North Dakota advocates and the HSUS.

“The HSUS will come into any state and partner with anyone who is leading the charge on an issue,” he says.

David Pauli, a Billings, Mont., HSUS regional director, in e-mails to his North Dakota allies, discussed coming to Dickinson and Bismarck to talk with Fair Chase hunting advocates.

An egregious practice

“We helped pass a ban on this egregious practice in Montana in 2005 and are supporting similar goals in Idaho and Colorado,” Pauli wrote in summer 2008. “There is a strong agricultural and personal property rights lobby that is trying to derail the public’s opportunity to decide if they want this unethical form of trophy hunting in their state.”

Some of Pauli’s correspondence was copied to Karen Thunshelle, a Minot, N.D., animal advocate. She is a member of the HSUS and worked to collect signatures for the fair chase measure. She also was involved in a national effort to discontinue horse slaughter.

In August 2008, the initiated measure fell short of the required signatures to get on the ballot.

In 2009, there was HB1210, applied to elk producers shouldering regulation costs, but was defeated.

In 2010, the effort started again, and got on the ballot as Measure 2. It failed by a margin of 57 to 43, but carried Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D. Thunshelle helped find models to appear in television advertisements in support of the ban.

In the end, the ads included a credit line, saying they were paid for by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, which is listed as a separate lobbying affiliate of the HSUS at the state and federal levels, to “educate the public about animal protection issues, and to support humane candidates for office,” according to its website.

The Fair Chase committee a list of names, addresses and e-mails of 100,000 North Dakota hunters who did business online at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

On the elk rancher side were the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, and the North Dakota Farmers Union, among others.

In the 2011, some of the same people are working to make cruelty to animals a felony in the state. North Dakota is one of only four states where animal cruelty is not a felony.

Grosz acknowledges cutting off elk antlers probably causes some pain to the animals, but also prevents the animals from injuring each other elk. Elk naturally shed their antlers in March and then grow them back again.

“At some future date, I’m sure they’ll be after us for animal cruelty. I think they’ll be after (cattle) branding, castrating and dehorning, too,” he says.

The 2011 Legislature is poised to stop “Internet hunting,” a concept that Grosz personally opposes.

“It’s a straw man. Supposedly there’s an electric arm, with a remote control, where you put it on a field, in the cross- hairs and pull the trigger,” Grosz says. “You enter a credit card number from New York, and they’ll mail you the antlers, head, hair and hide.

“Everybody in America is against it. It’s like a video game; you’re not out there in the wind, rain and snow,” he says. “They say it’ll come to North Dakota, but nobody — nobody in the U.S. does that. It doesn’t exist and never did.”

Looking to the future, Grosz hopes to see elk meat prices recover on par with beef and other commodities.

“We want to keep on farming, keep on raising elk, but the rules need to be consistent,” he says.