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The Journal Gazette

Monday, January 11, 2016 10:50 pm

Panel OKs fenced hunting rules

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – A panel of senators Monday approved legislation that would put in place limited regulations of captive hunting facilities after a court ruling last year opened the industry for free-wheeling expansion.

High-fenced hunting is when people pay thousands of dollars to shoot deer that have been farm-raised for large racks on property surrounded by a large fence.

A bill that died last year would have authorized only the four captive hunting preserves existing at that time in Harrison, Marshall, Kosciusko and Blackford counties.

Since then, three more have opened in Whitley, Miami and Decatur counties, according to the Board of Animal Health.

The Miami County facility in Peru is owned by Russ Bellar, the man whose 2005 criminal trial involving canned hunting brought the issue to the forefront in the state.

He pleaded guilty to three counts of a federal indictment accusing him of violating federal drug and wildlife laws, and received a one-year prison sentence as well as fines, restitution and fees of more than $570,000.

Evidence during the trial showed a number of hunts that violated Indiana laws.

Clients would often pay thousands of dollars to shoot specific deer, sometimes in smaller pens, sometimes over bait. In some cases, the deer had been drugged before being placed in the smaller pens. Sometimes, clients killed more than one buck a year, did not possess a valid Indiana hunting license or used illegal weapons.

Since then, proponents of the industry have been trying to get past the Bellar aura and show that captive hunting in Indiana is ethical, fair and safe.

"I think this legislation makes it clear there are expected, acceptable standards as far as operations," said Dr. Darryl Ragland, a veterinarian and Purdue University faculty member speaking on his own behalf. "Anyone who chooses to engage in operation of a hunting preserve can’t just expect to do anything."

A 10-year legal battle has been waged over these facilities, ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled last year that the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t have authority to regulate privately owned deer. The Indiana Supreme Court allowed the decision to stand in June.

That left the practice unregulated.

Several speakers urged the senators to move the other direction and ban the operations altogether. They pointed to the dichotomy of treating the deer as privately owned livestock but allowing them to be hunted, which isn’t allowed for other livestock.

"This is not hunting. This is shooting livestock," avid hunter Joel Wieneke said. "Call it what it is. The statute makes them livestock. Don’t call it hunting. This is target practice."

Steve Cecil, representing the Indiana Wildlife Federation, said it doesn’t adhere to the ethics of fair chase. A number of other hunting and conservation groups also opposed Senate Bill 109.

Senators in support, though, sharply questioned some of the opponents about whether they support hunting in general and the opportunity this provides to hunters who can’t find other places to hunt.

"Not everyone has places they can go to hunt," said Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville. "Groups like yours (the Humane Society of the United States) are determined to put them out of existence. There is no end no matter what they do."

Under the bill, which now goes to the full Senate, the DNR would have no role in regulating the entities. Instead, the Board of Animal Health would assume full oversight, including licensing and inspections.

The bill would create four felonies: failure to report an escape within 24 hours after the escape is discovered; release of a privately owned deer into the wild; use of computer-assisted remote hunting; and allowing a deer to be hunted within 24 hours of previous sedation.

Any new preserves not in operation in 2015 would have to be at least 100 acres. Those grandfathered can be 80 acres. There is no language on how many animals per acre are permitted. Fences must be at least 8 feet high.

Hunting is allowed between Sept. 1 and March 1, and there is no limit on the number of deer that can be taken. Hunting can’t occur within 150 yards of an artificial feeding site.

The bill also expands to hunting certain types of exotic sheep and goats. Author Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said this is because facility owner Rodney Bruce – who won the lawsuit – already offers hunting of those species.

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, was one of eight yes votes for the bill.

Bellar, a longtime deer farmer, said his Indiana facility is open for hunting again on 1,700 acres in Peru. But he is spending most of his time on a new Ohio facility of 500 acres. Each facility is capable of providing deer for hundreds of hunters every year.

"It’s a good business. I love it," he said. "I’d be tickled if the legislature would get this all worked out."