ASHTON, Idaho – When 100 farm-raised elk fled his private hunting reserve through a bear-dug hole under the fence, owner Rex Rammell — a man with a long history of locking antlers with the state — didn't realize he'd wind up in the governor's crosshairs.
But a month later, about 20 of the elk are dead, shot on sight under an emergency executive order from Gov. Jim Risch. About 40 have been recaptured and the rest are roaming the alfalfa fields and forest slopes on the fringe of Yellowstone National Park, home to the nation's largest herd of wild elk.
Risch, joined by wildlife officials, says Rammell's elk will pollute the native gene pool and spread disease. Rammell, a veterinarian who made a career of breeding trophy bull elk for wealthy hunters and a sideshow of fighting the government, says he sold his farm and his elk and would like to run against Risch for public office in four years on a campaign against government abuses.
"When people tell my story, it'd read like a novel. It's like I've gotten on the wrong side of the mafia," Rammell said of the state and public hunters who patrol the rock-cobbled roads near his ranch, taking elk in their sights.
"But America will soon know that there's a mountain man out here that's not going to let the government do it."
The western ethic that cherishes individual freedoms and eyes government with wide suspicion might run deepest in Idaho.
It was here that anti-government crusaders like Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and Claude Dallas, an outlaw who shot two state game wardens, turned violent and gained national attention, all while quietly tapping a dormant well of sympathy among Idahoans.
Similarly, Rammell's vitriol against the government is met with some nodding heads, at least here in far-flung eastern Idaho, under the shadows of the Grand Teton mountains and Yellowstone.
Risch — a popular GOP step-in who had been lieutenant governor before President Bush tapped then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to lead the Department of Interior — has taken the unprecedented step of declaring the open season on Rammell's escaped elk.
He's backed his policies up by citing wildlife biologists and agriculture experts in public statements on the domestic elk threat.
The state statutes are clear, Risch says. The elk are considered "abandoned" — not private property as Rammell attests — after seven days on the lam. Hunters who kill an animal have "absolute immunity," Risch promised.
"Our wild elk herds are one of the gems of the Gem State," he said recently. "We jealously guard that."
But Rammell vowed to sue the governor and any private hunter who bags one of his $6,000 bull elk, selectively bred to grow massive antlers.
"If these people are going up here because the great governor of Idaho says they are immune from prosecution, they're going to find themselves in court wondering why the governor promised something that isn't true," he said.
In the cloistered potato-farming towns along the Wyoming border, a ragtag coterie of reluctant police officers, high school buddies and dyed-in-the-wool Idaho libertarians are rooting for Rammell.
Deputies from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office appeared with Rammell at a press conference on Wednesday. They vowed to stay neutral, but said they will guard private property where state sharpshooters aren't welcome.
One man, eligible for the open hunt on Rammell's elk, said he wouldn't take part and would instead urinate in the vial sent by the Department of Fish and Game for blood-drawing and disease testing on downed elk.
"The government's got all this power that comes against the people," said Clint Calderwood, a nursery owner and Rammell's high school classmate from nearby Tetonia. "That's what people are so scared of. They've gotten so big and out of control."
It is not Rammell's first clash with state regulators.
In 2002, he sparred with the state Department of Agriculture over hefty fines assessed against him for failing to apply blaze-orange ear tags that identify elk as domestic.
Inspectors also said he improperly maintained protective fencing on a different elk ranch and protested a law requiring testing for the incurable chronic wasting disease.
Rammell — at times representing himself in court — took his ear-tagging case all the way to the state Supreme Court, where he lost.
Still, driving across the state in his pickup, he successfully lobbied enough lawmakers in Boise to pass a law capping how much state agencies can fine violators. The bill relieved Rammell of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines he had accrued.
A supporter, state Rep. Dennis Lake, stressed that the vote was a statement on curbing the excess of government.
"I said it then, I'm not going to let a department use heavy-handed tactics," he said.
Rammell's bluster may translate into a viable political run — he said he wants to unseat Risch in four years — but first he will campaign for his beauty-queen daughter, Amanda, in her bid to become Miss Idaho.
"Then I'll be famous," Rammell said.
Amanda laughed: "You're already famous."