The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Several private game preserves where hunters pay for a chance to shoot deer kept inside high fences would be legalized under a proposal being considered by state legislators.
Owners of the preserves and some outdoorsmen organizations disagree on whether hunting the farm-raised deer should be allowed. Preserve supporters told an Indiana House committee Monday that legislation is needed to resolve an eight-year-old lawsuit over whether five existing preserves can stay in business.
Rep. Matt Ubelhor, R-Bloomfield, said the proposal would protect hundreds of thousands of dollars of investments by the preserve owners who started opening the sites in 1999. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources ruled in 2005 that fenced hunting was illegal.
Those existing preserves have remained open under a court injunction, and Ubelhor's proposal would only allow permit sites that have operated continuously since 2005.
"This is in no way an expansion of the program," Ubelhor said. "It's simply protecting the operators that are there today."
Leaders of the Indiana Deer Hunters Association, Indiana Bowhunter Association and Indiana Wildlife Federation told the House Natural Resources Committee they were concerned about deer at the preserves spreading other illnesses to the state's wild deer population.
Some preserve owners and farmers who raise deer sold to those sites said Monday they closely monitored their animals for signs of diseases.
Sen. Michael Crider, who was the DNR's law enforcement director when the fenced-hunting ban policy was adopted, said the agency wanted to ensure a healthy wildlife population and that the policy was reasonable. He said he also shared the concerns about the hunting of captive deer.
"The people that run pens are interested in somebody coming there and killing an animal," said Crider, R-Greenfield. "They don't get paid unless someone harvests that deer."
The hunting groups also criticized the preserves, saying it isn't real hunting because the farm-raised deer have less fear of humans than wild deer.
"They are domestically raised just like cattle and pigs are today," said Herb Higgins, an officer of the bowhunter association.
Rodney Bruce, owner of Whitetail Bluff near the southern Indiana town of Corydon, said the preserves didn't offer canned hunting.
"If you have a deer in a room that can't escape or in a pen that can't escape, that's totally unacceptable," Bruce said. "Our places are not like that."
Bruce said his 120-acre business typically has 70-80 deer within its fences and that hunters are still challenged. The preserve's website lists 3-day hunting and lodging packages based on buck size, ranging from $1,900 to $7,900.
The House committee could vote next week on whether to advance the proposal to the full House.
Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, blocked a broader House-approved bill last year that would have legalized the existing fenced-hunting preserves and allowed new ones.
Long said Monday he continued to believe that legislators reached a tacit agreement several years ago not to intercede in the lawsuit and that he hoped the Senate wouldn't have to deal with the issue again this year.
Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who took office in January, is hesitant about expanding high-fenced preserves, but "is keeping an open mind" about proposals to allow the existing preserves to continue operating, spokeswoman Kara Brooks said.
Ubelhor said he wanted to allow good businesses to stay open.
"This is an opportunity for people to take part in hunting and have a good time doing it," he said. "They're guaranteed a safe place to hunt."