(This piece was originally published on March 20, 2016 in the South Bend Tribune.)
For two weeks each November, Jeff Davis is in heaven. That’s when the state of Indiana allows him to indulge his passion of hunting deer with firearms.
“I love it, I can’t wait for it,” said the 52-year-old Osceola man. “When gun season opens I try to get out there every day. I take time off work. It’s just you out there with nature.”
Under a bill passed recently by the Indiana General Assembly, Davis could shoot deer from September through February if he wanted to pay the owners of fenced-in preserves thousands of dollars. He doesn’t have that kind of money, but even if he did, he said he wouldn’t be interested.
“There’s a lot of things I disagree with about it,” Davis said of the practice critics deride as “canned hunting.” “It’s not really giving fair chase for the animal, and they’re accustomed to being fed all the time.”
Davis hopes Gov. Mike Pence will veto the bill, and he’s not alone. The Hoosier Environmental Council, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the Indiana Deer Hunters Association and the Humane Society of the United States are among the groups who’ve fought the bill. They oppose it on two fronts: They feel it’s unethical to hunt farm-raised animals that can’t flee because of 8-foot fences, and they say confining deer on farms and in preserves, and transporting them across state lines can spread deadly diseases, such as chronic wasting disease, to wild deer.
There are believed to be at least seven such preserves in Indiana, and they’ve been operating for years. But their legal status has been in limbo for the past decade, since the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 2005 ordered their closure. That order was stayed when the roughly dozen hunting preserves operating at that time sued the DNR, arguing that the state agency had no statutory authority over privately owned animals.
The case took a decade to wind through the courts, until February 2015 when the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in favor of the preserves.
The bill, which easily passed the House last year but came one vote shy of clearing the Senate, gives regulatory authority over the industry to the state Board of Animal Health, which oversees livestock production. The bill not only legalizes preserve hunting of deer, but adds exotic sheep and goat to the allowable game. If it becomes law, opponents worry that more preserves will open, said Tim Maloney, senior policy director with the Hoosier Environmental Council.
There have been many instances, in other states and in Indiana, where deer and elk have escaped hunting preserves when fences have broken. They could then spread disease to wild herds, and exotic sheep and goat would be loose in a non-native habitat, Maloney said.
Indiana’s wild hunting industry, whose annual economic impact is estimated at $200 million to $300 million, would then be jeopardized, he said.
“We don’t understand why you would put that at risk for these facilities that could potentially lead to so many problems,” Maloney said.
Pence received the bill Thursday and has until this coming Thursday to sign it or let it become law without his signature. His spokesman last week said the governor “will give the bill careful consideration” but declined to comment.
Two Michiana area legislators played leading roles in this year’s bill. Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, co-authored the measure, and Rep. David Niezgodski, D-South Bend, signed on as a sponsor. It passed the Senate 29-19 and the House 61-35.
Of the 29 Democrats in the House, only Niezgodski and Rep. Terry Goodin, of Austin, voted for the bill. Pushing it were the Indiana Farm Bureau and the Indiana Deer and Elk Farmers Association. Niezgodski, noting his district added rural areas when it was redrawn four years ago, said he had “constituents” who asked him to be a co-sponsor.
“It’s not necessarily about liking the bill or the practice,” Niezgodski said. “The bottom line is as a representative you’re supposed to do your very best to represent all of your constituents. There are at least 400 small business farms raising these deer, with at least three or four in St. Joe County. Even though it’s not a practice I would ever do, it’s still something that does exist out there.”
Niezgodski said he recalled a couple of years ago when he served on a summer study committee that heard hours of testimony on the issue.
“There were certain groups talking about chronic wasting disease but there was not one case whatsoever where they proved beyond a doubt that (a hunting preserve) was where it originated from,” he said. “I’m not going to pass judgment. This bill regulates this practice the best we can.”
Preserves must pay the state an annual $300 licensing fee, be at least 100 acres in size and have fences at least 8-feet tall. Customers would not be required to obtain a hunting license but would pay the preserve owner a $60 permit fee per animal taken, money that the owner would passed on to the state.
The closest preserve to South Bend is Backwoods Preserve Whitetails, in northern Marshall County between Plymouth and Walkerton. Along with deer, Backwoods Preserve already offers big-horned sheep and several species of ram, according to its website. The business did not return The Tribune’s email or voice messages seeking comment.
Big bucks at stake
Animal rights advocates and traditional hunters, considered by some to make odd bedfellows, object to how the industry has turned deer, historically part of Indiana’s public domain, into commodities for big profit. Through electro-ejaculation of bucks, storing their semen and surgical artificial insemination into does, breeders create bucks with racks that are unnaturally large. Marianne Holland, a Hoosier Environmental Council spokeswoman, said the racks are sometimes so big that the deer can barely walk with them, let alone flee hunters in a sporting manner.
Davis, the Osceola hunter, said he’s never been to a preserve but he’s seen photos of these massive racks. A hunter in the wild can go years without seeing them that large, Davis said.
Davis and critics like him are simply “jealous,” and have “rack envy,” said John Newsom, the Indiana Farm Bureau’s regional manager over LaPorte, St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall, Kosciusko and Fulton counties. Newsom said he sees nothing wrong with the way preserve game are bred.
“They breed it for what the market demands,” Newsom said. “That’s what people are wanting, a strong healthy male deer with a big set of horns on him.”
Newsom also defended how these animals are hunted in the preserves. Despite the tall fences, he said the preserves are large enough for the pursuit to be sporting.
“These animals have ample fair chase,” he said, referencing a phrase hunters use as the standard for sport. “It’s a genuine hunting experience.”
Last summer, Newsom said he and Arnold, the LaPorte senator who authored the bill, rode four-wheelers around the Backwoods Preserve for an hour and saw only one deer.
“That showed him that it was not what he was being told it was,” Newsom said. “These are legitimate businesses.”
Newsom said a major reason the farm bureau’s members wanted to push for the bill again this year was because of how much the deer breeding industry in Indiana has grown, often in rural areas that have been hit hard economically. Limiting deer farmers, most of whom are Amish, to out-of-state markets could be disastrous if there was ever a chronic wasting disease outbreak in Indiana.
“We’d have to shut our borders and these deer farmers in Indiana would have no viable way to sell them,” Newsom said.
John Bogucki, an avid traditional hunter from North Liberty, said he recognizes that the industry is providing jobs for people and he figures preserve hunters will just bring their money to other states if they can no longer spend it in Indiana. For that reason, he said he doesn’t care whether Pence allows the bill to become law.
But Bogucki, a certified measurer of deer racks, wants to make one thing clear.
“It’s a business,” Bogucki said. “Call it a business and stop using the word ‘hunting.’ It’s just like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s no different than taking sheep to the slaughterhouse.”
When told of Newsom’s “rack envy” comment, Bogucki chuckled. He said he isn’t jealous because he knows racks that large and with that many points aren’t available in the wild since they don’t happen naturally.
“It’s kind of pitiful,” he said, “if that’s what you’ve got to do to shoot a trophy animal.”