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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - Deer as livestock? What other farmer lets people pay to shoot his livestock for trophies?

This week the Indianapolis Star has been running Ryan Sabalow's lengthy and powerful, four-part series on the deer farming industry. A few quotes from the introduction:

The Star investigation found that more than half the states that allow high-fence hunting provide little or no oversight of how deer and elk are killed. So, while the killing of livestock is governed by humane slaughter rules, and the taking of wildlife is governed by hunting laws, anything goes on preserves in most states. The industry counters criticism of this fact by saying the market regulates itself, that hunters naturally eschew unethical behavior.

But The Star investigation found case after case of hunters so obsessed with trophy antlers that they were willing to blur ethical lines. The Star talked with industry insiders and hunters across the country who said the very act of shooting farm-raised deer inside fences shouldn't be called hunting.

Today's final chapter is titled "What can happen if preserve owners make the rules." Here are some quotes:
PERU, Ind. – For seven days in January 2005, a jury in a federal courtroom heard tales from a now-notorious Indiana hunting preserve of deer being drugged and even a sick deer propped up in a 1-acre pen so a hunter could shoot a $15,000 trophy.

Jurors heard testimony from an outdoor television celebrity, a corporate CEO, a country music star and an ex-NFL quarterback, some of whom paid substantial sums to shoot deer in enclosures so small that prosecutors dubbed them "killing pens." One shot his deer only minutes after it was released from a trailer.

When the prosecution rested its case, the defense team called only one witness — an accountant. He testified that the preserve owner, Russ Bellar, had paid taxes on the deer.

The message was clear to those familiar with the legal complexities surrounding the captive-deer industry: Bellar was saying that he owned the deer; they were no longer part of the publicly owned wild herd from which their ancestors had been taken generations ago. To Bellar, these deer were livestock. His livestock. And the clear implication was that he could do whatever he wanted with them.

Bellar ended up spending nine months in a federal prison. But his argument lives on, and the laws that put him in prison might not. In fact, the principle behind Bellar's argument has been used by lobbyists across the country and has taken root in the law in numerous states where farms and preserve owners seek to fend off stronger disease controls and hunting ethics rules. * * *

As the lobbyists push their agenda, the crucial debate on those disease and ethics issues appears tangled in arguments about definitions and which agency has oversight. In effect, Bellar's argument is carrying the day.

With such lobbying, the preserves have already carved out a free-wheeling niche between the laws and the agencies governing livestock and wildlife. The killing of livestock and wild deer is regulated in most states. But The Indianapolis Star's investigation revealed that in most states that allow fenced hunting, virtually anything goes on the preserves. Baiting deer? Shooting deer in small pens? Selling specific deer to be shot? It's all good. Practices that landed Bellar in prison are perfectly legal in some states. * * *

Who owns the deer?

Each state regulates the captive-deer industry differently. Some have resolved basic issues about whether the animals are classified as livestock. Indiana has not.

Its experience is an example of what can happen when those issues aren't resolved and agencies try to shoehorn a hybrid industry into regulatory structures that were created separately for agriculture and wildlife.

The captive deer industry has aspects of both, which irks its critics.

"These are livestock while they're being raised, but the moment they're released into the game preserve, they become wildlife and available for the hunt," said Jerry Wheeler, founder of Hoosiers for Ethical Hunting. "It's a magic transformation."

Is it really hunting if the animal was raised in captivity from birth? Is it really agriculture if the animal is hunted, rather than slaughtered? And what other farmer lets people pay to shoot his livestock for trophies? Such questions have surrounded the captive-deer industry for years, and they were central to the Bellar case.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources considered Bellar's deer to be wildlife subject to game laws. And when Bellar agreed to plead guilty to violating a federal game law and two counts of conspiracy in 2005, the DNR's argument appeared to have won. Bellar was sent to a federal prison for nine months and agreed to pay $575,000.

Within a few months, the DNR issued an order attempting to shut down the dozen or so high-fence preserves then in Indiana. The preserves filed a lawsuit, and the DNR action was blocked.

Around the time of Bellar's indictment, state Rep. Bill Friend, R-Macy, asked Indiana's attorney general to examine the laws governing captive deer. The attorney general's report revealed that Indiana law contained a number of inconsistencies. One area of the law said all wildlife was considered part of a public trust, owned by the state and managed by the DNR. But various laws also let breeders own deer as long as they had permits from the state. Other provisions even allowed for some deer to be classified as domestic animals or livestock.

But there was a catch.

The attorney general's report said deer classified as livestock could not be hunted. They had to be killed in licensed slaughterhouses using humane slaughter techniques. The law clearly did not anticipate the deer industry as it evolved.

"Indiana's existing statutes and rules do not directly address many of the questions surrounding the complicated and controversial issue of hunting privately owned deer kept on private property," then-chief counsel Greg Zoeller wrote.

Zoeller, now the state's attorney general, called on the legislature to clear up the law. Legislators, however, balked. It wasn't until 2013 that a county court ruled the animals were livestock and the DNR therefore had no jurisdiction. The state plans to appeal. For the time being, the DNR is not enforcing hunting laws on the four preserves still operating in Indiana. For now, the preserve owners are free to set their own standards.

As if to emphasize the ambiguity surrounding this industry, however, another county court in Indiana issued a contradictory opinion last year, ruling that the DNR has at least some oversight. [ILB emphasis]

ILB: This Oct. 3, 2013 ILB post covers the Harrison County ruling and links to both the Harrison County and Owen County trial court decisions.

A notice of appeal was filed in the Harrison County decision, Whitetail Bluff v. DNR (31C01-0508-PL-000033), on 11/1/2013. Nothing is showing up yet in the appellate docket.

The ILB has had many entries on the canned hunting issue. Here is a list.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 2, 2014 09:43 AM
Posted to Indiana Government