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Friday, August 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Freed mink attack Sultan farms

Times Snohomish County bureau

SULTAN — Jeffrey Weaver is getting a quick — and unwelcome — education in the feeding habits of farm-raised mink.

The Sultan-area man, who raises exotic chickens and ducks as a secondary source of income, has lost nearly two-dozen birds since about 10,000 domestic mink were released into the wild from a nearby farm.

He isn't alone. Sultan police have taken several reports this week from local farmers who are missing chickens, other fowl and cats since the Monday release.

State biologists warn that the situation could likely get worse. If a few of the farm-raised mink survive the winter, they could breed with each other or with wild mink native to the area.

If that happens, expect a decline in local populations of small mammals, waterfowl, birds and farm-raised ducks and chickens, said Ruth Milner, a district biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The mink were released Monday morning from the Roesler Brothers Fur Farm when someone cut through a fence and opened numerous cages. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a group classified as a domestic terror organization by the FBI, has claimed responsibility in an e-mail to the media.

While most of the mink have been rounded up or have died from dehydration or run-ins with vehicles, as many as 1,000 are still missing.

The mink industry group Fur Commission USA has said that farm-raised mink cannot survive in the wild, but the ALF claims they can.

What the ALF might not have bargained for is the domino effect of such a large release, said Fish and Wildlife's Milner.

"These things will survive and reproduce as long as they have something to survive on," Milner said. "With the previous warm winter, we've got really high small mammal and bird populations. I'd predict a possible crash in those populations."

She cited the case in Crow Hill, England, in 1998, when animal-right activists released 6,500 farm-raised mink, which killed scores of domestic pets and farm animals, including cats, hamsters, chickens and guinea pigs. The mink almost caused an endangered water vole to become extinct.

Weaver said he awoke yesterday morning to the sound of angry geese. Aware of the recent mink release, he took a quick look outside.

"There were two mink running away, one with a chicken head in his mouth," Weaver said. "Now I'll be up the next two nights, because I know the mink will be back."

Weaver said he's never had problems with mink or weasels before. The blue sheen of the mink matched that of the mink raised at the Roeslers' farm. Wild mink are brown.

Weaver estimated his loss at about $2,000.

Weaver breeds Indian Runner ducks — a tall, upright duck that can be bred in many colors — and Banny chickens — a small, rare species of chicken. Both can bring high market prices.

Dave Ross, who lives adjacent to the mink farm, is short two cats and five Aracona and Jim Brown white chickens.

The Aracona chickens lay green eggs that Ross sells at Easter; the Jim Browns are a rare species infrequently bred; and the cats are longtime pets, he said.

"I killed one of them mink as it was running away," he said, also noting the silver-blue color. "It made my wife upset, but I'm not having them around. They're destroying everything I've got."

Ross said it was the first time he's ever had an animal after his chickens before.

Sultan Police Chief Fred Walser said his officers have spent the past four days rounding up mink in garages and back yards. He's trying to keep the peace between angry residents and the mink farm's owners.

"There's just not much we can do," he said. "It's a matter for the insurance companies."

Initially, owners of the Roesler farm said the blue mink couldn't survive more than a day or two without water and food — a mixed diet of meat byproducts.

But Milner suspects the mink are hitting farms because they appear familiar.

Teresa Platt, executive director of the Fur Commission USA, which is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest, said she, too, has heard of complaints that mink are attacking local livestock.

"They're carnivorous; this is what they eat," she said. "I've heard of it occasionally, but it usually doesn't grow into a colony of wild mink."

Biologists are likely to find an occasional blue mink — a subspecies of wild mink — in the area for years to come, Platt said. The blue color is a naturally occurring gene mutation that farmers have isolated for breeding.

But if the mink begin to breed in the wild, the recessive blue gene eventually will disappear, returning them to their dominant brown color, Platt said.

Milner said any spike in mink population in time will settle down, but these runaways could be here to stay.

"My guess is they're probably pretty well-adapted to existing in the wild," Milner said. "They could develop into a wild population in the area."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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