Indiana case highlights ‘deer-hunting preserve’ problems

Peru, Ind. (AP) — For seven days in January 2005, a jury in a federal courtroom heard tales from an Indiana hunting preserve about 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 issues 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 CWD continues to spread – helped along by the captive-deer industry’s brisk interstate trade – deer breeders argue that current rules are more than adequate. Idaho lawmakers, for example, passed a bill this year that would let elk farms conduct CWD tests on only 10 percent of the animals that die, instead of 100 percent.

Since 2011, lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced legislation that would loosen regulations on the industry or let it expand into places where fenced hunting or deer breeding currently is not allowed.

As the lobbyists push their agenda, the 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 already have 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 an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed that in most states that allow fenced hunting, virtually anything goes. 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.

Shawn Schafer, executive director of the North American Deer Farmers Association, said hunting preserves should be exempted from some of the rules violated on Bellar’s Place, and his group is fighting to change them. The more unsporting practices he can’t condone. But he said market forces will ensure they don’t happen on preserves in states where there is no hunting oversight.

“Hunters don’t want to do that stuff,” Schafer said. “Customer satisfaction regulates that right out of business.”

The video evidence and testimony about Bellar’s Place tell a different story.

In the footage from Bellar’s trial, a whitetail with majestic antlers was dying of pneumonia, so sickly that a ranch hand had to poke it with a sharp stick to get it to stand.

On wobbly legs, it toppled over in a snowy thicket. In the next video clip, it appeared to be propped into a standing position, a branch through its antlers.

A few yards away, a camouflaged hunter crouched in the snow, his rifle at the ready. A cameraman stood behind him filming the action, all part of a service for which the hunter paid $15,000.

In the video, the hunter fires and the deer collapses, legs twitching in the snow.

The videographer testified at trial that the hunt took place inside a 1-acre pen.

In an interview late last year, Bellar said it was no big deal.

“He’d have been dead in a couple hours anyway,” he said. “He would have absolutely been dead. That deer was not tranquilized. He was just sick. He paid for the deer. He absolutely paid for it.”

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 DNR 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 AG’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 AG’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 Indiana’s AG, 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.

Another county court in Indiana issued a contradictory opinion last year, ruling that the DNR has at least some oversight.

Such ambiguity is not limited to Indiana. The Indianapolis Star investigation found a similar conflict in a Missouri case involving the reimbursement of a farmer for deer that were killed by a neighbor’s dogs. A lower court ruled that the deer were wildlife, and the neighbor, therefore, was not required to reimburse the farmer. But the decision was overturned by an appeals court that ruled the animals were livestock.

The matter is unresolved in Kentucky, too. Fenced deer are classified as both livestock and publicly owned wildlife.

Kentucky preserves have no bans on hunting at night, using dogs, and shooting animals in small pens. Virtually any method a preserve owner deems appropriate is allowed.

Shortly after Bellar’s trial, Friend introduced legislation, which failed, aimed at removing the DNR’s authority to regulate farm-raised deer. It would have put captive deer under the jurisdiction of state agriculture officials.

It was not only meant to help preserves get out from under game laws. Breeders prefer agriculture departments because their mission includes the promotion of farmers and rural economies.

The same battle has been fought across the country. Today, each state has its own approach to deer behind fences. In Texas, the wildlife agency has primary authority. In Idaho and Nebraska, agricultural agencies do. Most, like Indiana, have a joint regulatory structure.

Meanwhile, deer breeders are lobbying for more changes, some of which could inhibit wildlife agencies’ ability to manage disease. Some states have exempted hunting preserves from CWD testing. Others limit the number of animals that need to be tested.

Those who have pushed back against the industry on the state level think a national dialogue would help establish standards and limit the risk of disease.

At the top of that agenda for some is the call for an end to interstate traffic in live deer.

“The feds should slam the door and say, ‘Boom, this is done,’ ” said Matt Dunfee, coordinator of the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, a group made up of national deer and elk hunting and advocacy groups.

A couple of laws provide an opportunity to apply rules. Congress could amend the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act to cover cervids, which include deer, elk, and moose. Or it could amend the Animal Welfare Act, which regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, and transport and by dealers.

“Yes, the public supports fair chase hunting, as long as the meat’s used,” said Jim Miller, professor emeritus at Mississippi State University’s Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture. “But I think if the public ever realized all of these things are going on at these captive cervid facilities, they would absolutely abhor any kind of operation like that.”

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