INDIANAPOLIS – It’s a fight that has gone on too long. And it’s time for the General Assembly to end it.
The state and the operators of fenced deer hunting preserves have been at odds for a decade over whether the operations are legal and can be regulated. During that time, lawmakers have failed to weigh in.
The problem is that existing state law doesn’t speak directly to the preserves, which allow customers to pay fees for the right to shoot a deer that is captive on a fairly expansive, largely wooded piece of land.
So in 1995, the Department of Natural Resources tried to shut the preserves down. But one of them – Whitetail Bluff in Harrison County – sued, and 10 years later, an appeals court said the DNR had no authority to regulate the operations, therefore leaving them in business.
Attorney General Greg Zoeller recently asked the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn that decision, a move he said preserves the DNR’s rights in the legal challenge.
But Zoeller said something else.
He doesn’t actually want the court to decide whether fenced hunting is legal or not in Indiana. He wants the General Assembly to make the decision and he called on lawmakers to get busy doing it.
In a news release, Zoeller said he doesn’t have an opinion about what the legislature should do.
But Zoeller noted in the release that “it’s important that legislators resolve the impasse one way or another and enact a new statute that directly addresses either high-fenced hunting specifically or hunting privately-owned wild animals more generally.”
Leaving the issue in limbo isn’t fair to anyone involved – not the owners of the preserves who have been operating in limbo all these years, not hunting groups who’ve been arguing fenced hunting is immoral and not the state regulators who have been trying to figure out how to interpret state law in a way that protects Indiana’s people and its wildlife.
The issue is not simply about the morality of hunting. Critics of the fenced preserves say that captive deer are also more likely to carry diseases that can cause problems for the state’s wild herds. Preserve owners say that’s not true and that they spend more time and money checking and caring for their deer than is ever spent dealing with wild animals.
Regardless, the legislature’s lack of clarity on the issue means there are no real rules to help minimize whatever risks exist.
It’s not that the General Assembly hasn’t tried. Lawmakers have debated the issue year after year – sometimes over bills that would have banned the operations completely and sometimes over legislation to legalize and regulate them. In some years, legislative leaders have killed the bills in deference to ongoing lawsuits. In other years, the courts have delayed rulings in deference to the General Assembly.
Last year lawmakers came close to a decision. But a bill to legalize the preserves died in the Senate when only 25 of the 50 members voted yes – one shy of the majority needed to pass the bill.
It’s time for the General Assembly to decide one way or another.
The House has passed a bill to legalize the existing operations and let the DNR and the State Board of Animal Health regulate them. Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, is now holding that bill, waiting for a proposal he considers fair and reasonable.
Meanwhile, no rules govern the operations.
“It appears that we are looking at a Wild West situation if we don’t do something,” Sen. Carlin Yoder, R-Middlebury, said last year. “If we don’t act, anything could go.”
And that’s just not a good idea for anyone.