Court rules state can't regulate fenced-in hunting preserves

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana appeals court sided Monday with the state's high-fenced deer-hunting preserves, ruling that the state wildlife agency doesn't have the authority to shut them down.

Such preserves have been open in Indiana for more than a decade and the court ruling comes as legislators are considering a bill that would set up a licensing and inspection process for the sites where farm-raised deer could be hunted provided they are at least 100 acres in size with fences 8 feet tall or higher.

The appeals court's 2-1 ruling said that since state law doesn't prohibit high-fenced hunting, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources exceeded its authority when it tried in 2005 to force the closure of the Whitetail Bluff preserve in southern Indiana's Harrison County.

The court's decision upheld a Harrison County judge's 2013 ruling in favor of the preserve. The appeals court decision acknowledged arguments from opponents of the preserves who maintain they offer "canned hunting" and increase the risk of spreading diseases to the state's wild deer.

"These are public policy concerns that should be carefully and thoroughly weighed in reaching a decision regarding the viability of this practice," the decision said. "We do not believe, however, that it is within our purview to perform this task."

The dissenting opinion by Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik argued that the Department of Natural Resources had the authority to regulate the deer-hunting preserves because it is tasked with overseeing wild animals in the state regardless of who owns them.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sean Eberhart said the panel didn't vote on the preserve licensing bill as scheduled Monday because members are considering whether legalization should be limited to the state's four existing preserves or opened up to new ones.

Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, said the appeals court's ruling emphasizes the need for the General Assembly to address regulating the preserves.

"There's nothing in place now, so they've been running preserves unregulated since the beginning," he said. "I think most of us can all agree that's not a good idea and we need to have some type of rules in place."

Opponents of legalizing the preserves — including the Indiana Deer Hunters Association, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, the Hoosier Environmental Council and the state chapter of the Humane Society — argue that the preserves don't offer true hunting of the farm-raised deer that are often bred for oversized antlers.

Preserve and deer farm operators denied that their animals pose any greater risk for diseases spreading to Indiana's wild herds and said their preserves provide a market for sale of animals from the state's nearly 400 deer farms.

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