On the Fence
Should it be legal to pay and shoot pen-raised big game? Not in Minnesota, say opponents of "canned hunts."
By Greg Breining. Photography by Ron Winch
Unlike his neighbors who grow corn, soybeans, and hogs, Larry Hinegardner raises elk, white-tailed deer, wild boar, and Spanish goats on 700 acres in the hills, river bottoms, and farmland of central Iowa.
And while you may get permission to hunt on his neighbors' farms during the fall deer and bird seasons, you can hunt on Hinegardner's property all year long.
Hinegardner owns North Star Gameland, a big-game preserve started by his father more than 50 years ago. Today the preserve is run by Hinegardner's son. (Another son runs the family game-fish hatchery.) The Hinegardners raise their livestock for hunting only. Hunters have access to about 600 acres, all enclosed by a high fence.
Some of Hinegardner's clients shoot for meat. Others are looking for trophies. Some also hunt abroad, even in Africa. Many are father-son teams.
"They want a hunt of it," says Larry Hinegardner. "If you want a fun two- to three-day hunt, you can get it." The shooters ride to the enclosure with a guide. They walk the property until they spot the animal or animals they want, stalk, and fire. Then the guide motors up with a four-wheel-drive to haul the game away to be butchered.
Last year North Star clients shot 110 wild pigs, nine deer of various species, 18 rams of three species, three goats, and one elk. Because Hinegardner charges by the kill, rather than the time spent hunting, success is virtually guaranteed. On preserves such as North Star, the state of Iowa allows hunting year-round.
The ability to "sell" the animals to hunters rather than to the livestock or meat market "adds a little" to the bottom line, Hinegardner says. "We eat good, we sleep good, but we haven't been to Hawaii yet."
Hunting Or Shooting?
Do game preserves such as North Star offer hunting, or only shooting? Minnesota's wildlife managers, conservation leaders, and ranchers are debating that question because North Star's brand of killing big game behind fences may come to Minnesota soon. Last year the Legislature considered a bill that would have allowed up to 10 big-game preserves in the state. The Department of Natural Resources and many hunting and conservation groups opposed it. The proposal, which failed, stirred passions. In fact, many opponents were loath to call the activity it would legalize "hunting." The owner of a Canadian web site devoted to raising deer wrote, "Next to abortion, I can't think of any more emotionally charged topic than hunting farms or hunting behind wire!"
Proponents of game preserves argue that hunting on fenced areas will mean more income for landowners who currently raise elk, bison, and other large animals but who are not allowed to charge hunters to shoot them. "We feel that agriculture needs any kind of a boost it can get," said Brenda Hartkopf of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, one of the principal advocates of hunting behind fences. "Agriculture is really struggling. Alternative agriculture is the up-and-coming thing. We need to keep these markets open for people to succeed."
Opponents argue that "canned hunts" reduce wildlife habitat, threaten populations of wild animals, undercut Minnesota's long tradition of public hunting, and tear at the ethical fabric of the "fair chase." Said Mike LaFleur, vice president for conservation issues for the Izaak Walton League, Minnesota Division, "I think it's unsporting. I think it's unethical. And I think the commercialization of hunting is terrible."
For years Minnesota game farms have stocked lands with pen-raised pheasants and other game birds. But shooting large game in fenced enclosures has never found acceptance in Minnesota. About half the states do allow such hunts. Elk are popular on these fenced ranches; so are bison, wild pigs, various deer species, and other animals, many exotic.
Donavan Olson is one of many game farmers who would like to change Minnesota's law. Olson, a member of the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, owns Taylor Elk Ranch near Windom, and runs about 325 elk on 240 acres. He began raising elk about five years ago. His oldest bulls are just now reaching maturity with large antlers. He sells the animals as breeding stock and for slaughter. He also sells antler velvet for pharmaceuticals.
"The velvet is a lot like the stock market," he says. "On any given day, you have to control your short-term emotions. In the long run, it's the most lucrative product, because it comes back every year. Velvet is a renewable resource. It's like an apple on the tree."
Various factors may encourage a rancher to take an elk out of velvet production and to sell it. As elk reach old age, velvet production often drops. Velvet prices may fall. "Now you sell that [elk] to a shooting operation," Olson says.
But as much as ranchers may get for an adult bull in auction, they stand to make even more by hosting hunters on their own property. A bull worth $2,000 on the market might bring twice that amount as a trophy. Truly monstrous bulls can bring as much as $25,000.
"If shooting preserves were allowed in Minnesota," Olson says, "I'd have an opportunity to get more money for my product." He'd gain simply because of a stronger market, not because he would invite hunters to his own property.
Ironically, Olson doesn't hunt behind fences himself. He pursues elk throughout the foothills and mountains of the West at the expense of several days and thousands of dollars. He doesn't intend to turn his own ranch into a shooting preserve because he wants his autumns free. "To be honest," he says, running a shooting preserve "would screw up my hunting."
Legalizing big-game preserves would mean more to rural Minnesota than simply "more money," say proponents. Advocates say paid hunts can --
- Diversify the rural economy
- Make economic use of marginal land unsuited to farming
- Reduce pressure on wild game
- Improve access to hunting land
But even property-rights groups inclined to support canned hunts as a landowner's prerogative see little benefit to conservation. At most, they say, a fenced shooting preserve is an economic use of land that keeps it in relatively natural condition for the benefit of some plants and animals. "It beats being turned into a mall, but that's about all you can say," says Donald Leal, senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center, a free-market think tank in Bozeman, Mont. "It's not the preferred alternative."
Spread of Disease
Opponents of "high-fence hunts," including such groups as the Minnesota DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, find plenty of arguments for their position.
The DNR opposes big-game farms to begin with. Herds of deer and elk feeding snout to snout in game farms are prime suspects in the spread of diseases that could potentially devastate wild herds of deer and elk. Wild deer and livestock, especially close relatives such as elk and red deer, can apparently pass disease back and forth in endless cycles of contagion. Of chief concern are bovine tuberculosis, which occurs in wild and captive herds in several states, and chronic wasting disease, found in wild deer and elk in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming and in captive herds in several states, though not Minnesota. Both have some potential to infect humans.
Biologists also worry that escaped deer and elk would breed with their wild relatives, rendering the wild herds genetically less fit. And, officials argue, big-game ranches with high fences wall off potential wildlife habitat and restrict the movement of wild game.
While allowing shooting on game preserves wouldn't in itself spread disease or contaminate herd genetics, DNR officials fear the very thing that ranchers desire -- that legal shooting would increase demand for animals and boost the number of game farms. Then problems would worsen proportionately.
Undercut Public Hunting
Then there's the concern that if captive hunts catch on, the whole industry would undercut public hunting and the system of wildlife management as they have evolved in this country during the past century.
Opponents, such as DNR agricultural policy coordinator Wayne Edgerton, say high-fence hunts violate "fair chase" ethics. Edgerton, who hunts wild elk in the Rockies, insists on calling the game ranches "shooting preserves."
"They're shooting them, not hunting them," he says. "The animal ought to be able to escape, and it ought to have the inclination to escape. If they don't have both of those, it's not fair chase."
Hunting big game behind fences differs from hunting stocked game birds, says Jim Posewitz, author of Beyond Fair Chase and Inherit the Hunt. Posewitz compares bird hunting on preserves to fishing for stocked trout -- less exciting and meaningful than hunting the wild creatures, but far more acceptable ethically than hunting pen-raised deer or elk. "The bird has a choice to fly. He has a chance. Hunters as a group are just more tolerant of that," says Posewitz, former game official for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks and founder of Orion: The Hunter's Institute.
"What bothers the elk hunters," Posewitz says, "is that the value of an elk stems from two places. One is that, as far as our culture is concerned, getting an elk takes considerable effort. That is the image, the expectation of elk hunting. The other is that we have worked for a century to bring the elk back from the brink of extinction." He points out that in the days of Theodore Roosevelt, elk numbered about 41,000 in all of North America. Now they number about 1 million.
Posewitz often cites Roosevelt in defense of his position. "When hunting [the elk] . . . he must be followed on foot, and the man who follows him must be sound in limb and wind," Posewitz says, quoting from Outdoor Pastimes of the American Hunter.
"This is what gave elk their value," Posewitz says. "Here's a whole hunting culture working for a century to bring wild elk back. Here people come flying in shooting a penned animal and then telling everyone they've been elk hunting in Montana."
That won't happen again in Montana any time soon. Posewitz and other hunters successfully organized a referendum, passed last fall, to ban canned big-game hunts in Montana. Posewitz quotes Roosevelt again: "The professional market hunter who kills game for the hide or for the feathers or for the meat or to sell antlers and other trophies; market men who put game in cold storage; and the rich people, who are content to buy what they have not skill to get by their own exertions -- these are the men who are the real enemies of game."
Valerius Geist agrees. Geist, professor emeritus of environmental science and adjunct professor of biology at the University of Calgary and a world-renowned expert on hoofed game, admitted he once fell for game ranching "hook, line, and sinker." "Now I am ashamed to reflect that it took me all of eight years to see through the consequences, for on the surface it all looks so innocent and appealing," he later wrote.
The trouble, he says, is that game ranching undercuts the enviable system of game management that evolved in North America during the 20th century. Game ranching violates all the primary tenets of that system -- that wildlife belongs to the public, that it is not for sale, that even the poor can hunt, and that wildlife is killed only out of necessity. "It's not there to be blasted for the hell of it and to be left here to die," Geist says. "We don't shoot it for fun; we shoot it for utility."
"Hunting is a relationship with the land and the animal you're hunting, and this isn't hunting," says LaFleur of the Izaak Walton League. Rather than nurture that relationship, he says, the acceptance of private hunting will erode the commitment to maintaining a system of public hunting areas. "The commercialization of hunting will become the norm," LaFleur says. "I think it will weaken our system of wildlife management areas. It's not going to topple the wildlife management system in a week or a day. But it is just another erosion of it."
Opponents of shooting preserves often cite Texas as a place where fee hunting has put the activity out of the reach of most hunters, but it's probably wrong to suggest paid hunts have undercut the public hunting tradition, says David Sinclair, chief of wildlife enforcement for the state of Texas. With 97 percent of its land in private hands, Texas never had much of a public tradition, and fee hunts have helped meet the demand for hunting land. Despite the strong tradition of fee hunting on private land, the state also leases land for public hunting, Sinclair says.
And not all high-fence hunting is created equal; some may actually meet the definition of fair chase and serve the cause of conservation. In Texas, fenced enclosures may total tens of thousands of acres, and game essentially runs wild. In South Dakota, fenced hunts help Custer State Park manage two large species that neighboring Minnesota has had little luck in bringing back to the land: elk and bison. Hunters pay as much as $310 for a license to hunt elk and $3,000 for a guided hunt by four-wheel-drive for an old trophy bull bison that has outlived its usefulness to the herd. The park also offers a horseback buffalo hunt for $10,000 per hunter.
Even so, Custer's fenced hunts differ from the typical ranch outing. Hunters must search a fenced enclosure of 68,000 acres, nearly 100 square miles, for one of only about 15 skittish and widely dispersed bulls slated to be culled. "You really do a lot of traveling on that hunt," says Ron Walker, Custer's resource manager. "On a typical looking day, we'll put in 100 miles off-road plus hiking around. We're gone from dawn till dark. It's not a pen shoot, I guarantee you that."
Does the greater area make Custer different from a typical shooting preserve? At what point do the fences become irrelevant to the chase? Walker declines to say how big an area must be before shooting becomes hunting. But, "in my humble opinion, we're well beyond the borderline of hunting behind the fence. We're on search and rescue all the time. If you can get lost, it's probably big enough."
No matter how big an area animals have to roam and escape, objections to fenced hunts probably won't diminish if the Minnesota Legislature considers the issue again this year. After last year's loss, the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association is rethinking its strategy. "We're still behind the concept," Hartkopf says, but the group may avoid references to hunting. "We're not considering this hunting as a sport as much as we're considering it a harvest ranch," she says. "It's a very different thing."
Greg Breining is a free-lance writer and Managing Editor of the Volunteer.